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The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want
The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want
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The Unwanted Sound Of Everything We Want

Emily Shelton

1st October, 2010

A weighty but informative analysis by Garret Keizer looking into the conflict between our need for noise and our yearning for quiet...

Almost scientific in style, Keizer has left no stone unturned in his global research into the history of noise, its role in modern society, its meaning in different communities and its impact on individuals. He organises his research to create a readable and robust argument, but one that is perhaps only suitable for those with an interest and reason for delving into this specialised text.

Keizer’s views on noise are clear, having written ‘most of this book in an old farmhouse, tucked among the hills of northern Vermont’. However, he still ventures deep into the neighbourhoods of New York, the Buddhist temples of Sri Lanka and the streets of Mumbai to conduct his ‘survey of global noise’.

Informative history of noise

From the big bang to the rise in automobile ownership, Keizer maps out a comprehensive history of noise and our reaction to it.

Alongside references to the loudest sound ever recorded (eruption of Krakato volcano in 1883) and the world’s first noise law introduced by the Romans, Keizer cites the Industrial revolution as a turning point for noise levels as church bells and roosters start to compete with ‘steam whistles, thundering belts and pulleys’.

He illustrates how the rise of consumption and consumerism in the 1950s associated noise with power, but is quick to point out people’s realisation that with noise came pollution, annoyance and health risks. He find examples of legislation and campaigns which, to this day, are battling for a quieter society - Charles Dickens’ support for the ‘Bill for the Suppression of Street Noises’ is just one example.

Detailed analysis

Keizer’s suggestion that the actual word ‘noise’ could derive from ‘nausea’ puts a new spin on things.

He suggests ‘we’ve smothered organic sound with manufactured sound’ but implies life without ‘modern noises’ from the fridge, computer or washing machine would be too much of a challenge. There are other barriers to noise reduction; for instance, while electric cars may be quieter they pose a potential danger to the visually impaired who rely on sound as their sight. He explores the challenges we face in trying live more sustainably without creating more noise and visits communities where this is encroaching on their quality of life.

This book wouldn’t be complete without references to beauty of sound – Keizer enthuses about the ‘buzz of a classroom’ and the signing and beating of wings by the Japanese Cranes of Idemizu; he devotes the whole of the last chapter to ‘The Most Beautiful Sound in the World.’ However, he brings us back to reality with the worrying fact that 120 million Europeans are ‘extremely annoyed by noise’ yet 67 million live with daily noise levels above 55 decibels, the level recommended by the European Union.

Easy to navigate

Keizer leaves room for the reader to make their own conclusions; this is made easier by the clearly structured chapters, headlines and subheadings.

The 80 pages of comprehensive notes and bibliography emphasise the detailed approach Keizer has taken to collate previous texts, arguments and legislation into one coherent case. His own interpretation then provides a fresh layer of perspective.

‘Sitting quietly at the back’

In addition to the main text, Keizer offers an extremely useful encyclopaedia-like back page section. His Timeline of Noise History maps out the impact of noise, as a result of natural events, warfare, literature, culture, law, science, industry, music and much more, from 3.5million years ago up to the 21st century.

The list of Decibels in Everyday Life and Extraordinary Things, from rock concerts to lawnmowers, is intriguing as well as surprising, while his list of Organisations That Deal With Noise only strengthens the argument that we must be living with a noise problem for such organisations to even exist – ‘Noise Pollution Clearing House’ and ‘Friends of Silence’ being just two. There is even a section full of Practical Considerations for Noise Disputes.

A useful read for a never ending debate

A particular anti-noise campaigner is referred to as a ‘mix of noise-hater, socialist, romantic, feminist and pessimist’; however, one could argue this is also an accurate description of Keizer himself, perhaps without the feminism.

Leading by example Keizer appears to put the lid on his argument with his own Personal Noise Code. The 12 simple pledges include, ‘If someone invents an electric fork, I will do without one’, ‘I will vote for political candidates who support quiet diplomacy’ and ‘I will not take the sounds I love for granted.’

It’s easy to be persuaded by Keizer’s ideal but, as he goes out of his way to explain, noise is as much about what we want as about what we seek to avoid.

The Unwanted Sound Of Everything We Want by Garret Keizer (Public Affairs, $27.95)

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