Magazine article The Christian Century

Noise Level

Magazine article The Christian Century

Noise Level

Article excerpt

The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book about Noise

By Garret Keizer

PublicAffairs, 400 pp., $16.99 paperback


I am cranky about noise. TVs blaring in waiting rooms, background music that drowns out conversation, ear-splitting volume at the movies. On pastoral calls I appeal to mute the TV. At movie theaters I beg the manager for mercy.

My husband has begun to find my mounting zeal tiresome. "Why don't you just stay home?" he challenges. But our home environment is noisy too. Traffic at the intersection, helicopters overhead, bar patrons laughing and arguing as they spill out into the street, maudlin confessions of cell phone users clearly audible in my bedroom late into the night.

"Noise is not the most important problem in the world," Garret Keizer declares in the opening sentence of The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want. It's a surprising first move, this disarming demurral, and it convicts my inner crank. But Keizer goes on to vindicate those bothered by noise, even as he reframes, broadens and refines the problem. The result is a wide-ranging, ambitious and strikingly original argument about the politics of sound.

Keizer acknowledges the subjective dimension of noise, which is sometimes defined as unwanted sound. What I deem noise may not be bothersome to someone else, and what bothers me in one context could be acceptable to me in another. Some of Keizer's most provocative and challenging examples explore contestation over sound, including efforts to regulate street noise that historically set urban reformers against organ grinders and riverboat captains--and more recently, vendors in ice cream trucks.

But, he argues, noise has a much more significant objective dimension. High decibels, for example, can cause hearing loss and have other measurable physical and psychological effects. Here Keizer draws on studies such as George Michelsen Foy's Zero Decibels and George Prochnik's In Pursuit of Silence, and he adds a searching analysis of power and inequality, noting the disproportionate effect of noise on people on the margins. "Where there's noise there's often a complex of social, economic, and environmental disadvantages," such as those experienced by people living in cheaper housing near railroad tracks and highways.

Other sources corroborate Keizer's observations about the ubiquity of noise. …

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