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Apropos of Nothing

Sounds and Silence

George Michael Foy was being driven insane by noise. Thus began his quest for perfect silence.

Book Cover One may view our encounters with sounds and silence as a quotidian matter, but as Patrick Madden quotes Montaigne in his collection of essays, “From the most ordinary and commonplace things, if we could put them in their proper light, can be formed the greatest miracles of nature and the most wondrous examples.” And certainly, when the effects of noise and sound turn into something else, we have fertile terrain for one of those splendid ruminations that separates the commonplace from the trivial.

Which writer George Michelsen Foy does as he contemplates the absence of noise in his first-rate exploration of this and attendant issues, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence (Scribner).

Bob Shacochis opines:
As questing beasts go, silence proves to be as elusive as an aural unicorn in a dense thorny forest of attention-shredding noise. That a writer such as George Michelson Foy should apply his immense brain power and obsessive investigative skills to stalking this intriguing prey is a surprise and a pure delight. The result is a lively, elegantly written examination of nothing no less than our existence, as it pours into, and out of, our humble ears. The art and science of hearing has found its poet laureate.
George Michelsen Foy writes “I don’t know at what point noise became intolerable for me,” but his discovery sparked an inquiry that led to a variety of experiments—noise-canceling headphones, floatation tanks, silent meditation—and that, additionally, sent him to various sites around the world in search of absolute silence—Parisian catacombs, Joseph Pulitzer’s “silent vault,” the snowy expanses of the Berkshires, a giant nickel mine in Canada, and finally a Minnesota laboratory’s anechoic chamber, reputed to be the “quietest place on earth” (where 45 minutes in its pitch-black interior has been the limit of human endurance).

One of the book’s epigrams by Max Picard aptly (that being the reason it was chosen) reads, “Silence is not merely negative: it is not the mere absence of speech. It is positive, a complete world to itself.”
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