The Quest for Absolute Silence
By George M Foy
(Scribner, Hardcover, 9781416599593, 208pp.)
Publication Date: May 18, 2010
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Have our noise-soaked lives driven us mad? And is absolute silence an impossible goal—or the one thing that can save us? A lively tale of one man’s quest to find the grail of total quiet.---
“ I don’t know at what point noise became intolerable for me,” George Michelsen Foy writes as he recalls standing on a subway platform in Manhattan, hands clamped firmly over his ears, face contorted in pain. But only then does Foy realize how overwhelmed he is by the city’s noise and vow to seek out absolute silence, if such an absence of sound can be discovered.
Foy begins his quest by carrying a pocket-sized decibel meter to measure sound levels in the areas he frequents most—the subway, the local café, different rooms of his apartment—as well as the places he visits that inform his search, including the Parisian catacombs, Joseph Pulitzer’s “silent vault,” the snowy expanses of the Berkshires, and a giant nickel mine in Canada, where he travels more than a mile underground to escape all human-made sound. Along the way, Foy experiments with noise-canceling headphones, floatation tanks, and silent meditation before he finally tackles a Minnesota laboratory’s anechoic chamber that the Guinness Book of World Records calls “the quietest place on earth,” and where no one has ever endured even forty-five minutes alone in its pitch-black interior before finding the silence intolerable.
Drawing on history, science, journalistic reportage, philosophy, religion, and personal memory, as well as conversations with experts in various fields whom he meets during his odyssey, Foy finds answers to his questions: How does one define silence? Did human beings ever experience silence in their early history? What is the relationship between noise and space? What are the implications of silence and our need for it—physically, mentally, emotionally, politically? Does absolute silence
actually exist? If so, do we really want to hear it? And if we do hear it, what does it mean to us?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 30 million Americans suffer from environment-related deafness in today’s digital age of pervasive sound and sensory overload. Roughly the same number suffer from tinnitus, a condition, also environmentally related, that makes silence impossible in even the quietest places. In this respect, Foy’s quest for silence represents more than a simple psychological inquiry; both his queries and his findings help to answer the question “How can we live saner, healthier lives today?”
Innovative, perceptive, and delightfully written, Zero Decibels will surely change how we perceive and appreciate the soundscape of our lives.
George Michelsen Foy is the author of one non-fiction book and co-author of another. He has published twelve novels, some under a pseudonym. He has been an investigative reporter, writer, and/or editor for BusinessWeek, the International Herald Tribune, the Cape Cod Times, and the Register, and his articles, reviews, and stories have been published by Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe, Harper’s, and Men’s Journal. He has also held jobs as tunnel laborer, shipping clerk, merchant seaman and forklift operator. He was educated at the London School of Economics and Bennington College, and teaches creative writing at New York University. He lives in coastal Massachusetts with his wife, two children, and one Maine coon cat.
George Michelson Foy stood on the platform of a New York City subway station, battered by the noise of trains, crowds and traffic. Suddenly, he couldn't take another minute of the din. Zero Decibels is the story of Foy's search for absolute silence. More at NPR.org
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"George Foy has written the perfect antidote for our increasingly noisy age. Zero Decibels is meditative, witty, lyrical, and fascinating. Every page is a revelation."
—Alan Burdick, author of Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion
“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.”—Bob Shacochis, author of Easy in the Islands and The Immaculate Invasion
“Zero Decibels is the result of George Foy's year-long and personal quest for silence. A passionate and provocative study, it should be on everyone's must-read list.”—Anne D. LeClaire, author of Listening Below the Noise: The Transformative Power of Silence
"A compelling, lyrical exploration of an increasingly rare and elusive place: silence. Foy employs every means that modernity offers both to measure the pervasiveness and power of noise in modern life and to escape it. The results of his journey offer us not just a deeper appreciation of silence but, more surprisingly, of sound."—Charles Siebert, author of The Wauchula Woods Accord