Can you hear me now? When oil slicks coat the Gulf of Mexico and arctic glaciers retreat at an unimagined pace, when rivers catch fire and the sky glows red from factory emissions — when such things happen, people at least have a conversation about what’s going on. Environmental pollution surrounds us, and although opinions may range wide about what should be done about it, only the most callous profiteer could argue that it is a good thing.
Noise is also a pollutant, and a potentially dangerous one; but for some reason it has failed to resonate in the public’s collective ear — perhaps because the public is, literally, growing deaf. As with many forms of pollutants, noise is not a bad thing in its own right, no more than are, for example, the molecules of methane that a cow may share with the universe following its grassy lunch. It’s when it gets out of balance that we have a problem.
The question of noise pollution has hardly managed to rate an aside in the ongoing debate over environmental issues, but its time may be arriving. In 2010, three books appeared almost simultaneously, voicing frustration over the escalating noise in our lives: In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik (in April, from Doubleday); Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence by George Michelsen Foy (in May, from Scribner); and The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise, by Garret Keizer (also in May, from PublicAffairs Books). Such a surprising coincidence of publishing suggests that noise is in the air. All three authors travel quite a lot of the same territory. They all want things to be less loud, and as they investigate their topic, they trace a sometimes parallel trajectory of places that are noisy, places that are quiet, and places where scientists try to quantify what it all means.
Of the three, the most intimate in its approach is Foy’s volume. A FrenchAmerican novelist and journalist, Foy obviously passed his noise-tolerance limit long ago, and he has reacted by taking the matter personally. Of all the noises we encounter in the course of this book, the most annoying is a whine that emanates from the author himself and, unfortunately, threatens to drown out some of the essentially good points he makes. One suspects that he was an unhappy person long before he stood on the uptown subway platform at 79th Street and Broadway on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and realized that the confluence of four screeching trains was, for him, intolerable. He grows obsessive. He arms himself with a decibel meter and measures sound levels everywhere he goes. It turns out he was right to rebel against the roaring screech of the subways, which can register above 100 dB (decibels): dangerous territory. He displays a strand of New York provincialism that repeatedly frustrates the reader: you might want to scream, “Get out of New York!” at him, were you not sympathetic to his sensitivity to screaming. Anyway, Foy does eventually explore more silent climes — the Berkshires, Cape Cod — but one senses that the damage has been irreparable and that he will never crack a smile.
His decision to seek absolute silence seems rather a bizarre whim. The problem is not that we should have no noise. A certain amount of noise is just fine. A world without noise would be a world in which we didn’t speak, or sing, or chew, or walk, or anything. He wants to experience it all the same, and that