Silence and Its Sweet Opposite

by Weston Cutter

In Pursuit of Silence by George Prochnik

The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want by Garret Keizer

What’s weird is that, when these books came out, I saw, in one week, two reviews of both of them, both reviews printed in the NYTimes, but then, since, have seen and read nothing about them. Which is too, too bad, because, even if they’re not perfect books (1. They’re not; 2. What book is?), they’re wildly necessary and interesting and important books, books to keep on a book shelf marked audio, books to keep next to, say, Perfect Sound Forever or Something in the Air or the seemingly fascinatingly incredible How to Wreck a Nice Beach(I’ll read it someday).

Not unlike the Stan Cox‘s Losing Our Cool (a fascinating book on air conditioning, and one eminently worth reading presently if you like, well, seemingly anywhere in the states: it’s a Saturday morning as I write this and the day’s supposedly on the way to being 95˚), Prochnik’s and Keizer’s books may or may not offer exactly what you’re looking for if you’re at all interested in noise, if you’re at all drawn toward more quiet (or if you’re, like me, someone who claims over and over to want quiet, and to be ancy and bugged by certain noises and volume—someone who wears headphones while working and almost always has a fan blowing nearbye but someone who can get frustrated by the wet/dry vac the neighbor four houses down is running twenty minutes at a stretch, at 8:45 on a Tuesday, right as you’re trying to watch Breaking Bad).

Silence and noise have been fascinating to me for awhile because of music: I read about the square inch of silence project while in college, was taken by the old 1970’s binaural recordings and the stories behind their geneses (and then Pearl Jam did it later). Prochnik’s Pursuit of Silence is a bit breezier and more real-world-examining than Keizer’s Unwanted Sound—Prochnik deals more with the sounds, with the physical sensation of them (and the physical situations from which sound is emitted; check the chapter on the boom car contest in Florida), while Keizer wonders more about sound-as-politics, and the politics of sound (which, for anyone who’s ever insanely, irrationally pissed by a sound [the clicky metallic tick of iPhone keys being hit, for instance], will read like one’s deepest thoughts transcribed)—but both book together, working in tandem, provide a fascinating, philosophical entry into thinking seriously about silence, noise, and what we want.

Runaway Dream: Born to Run and Bruce Springsteen’s American Vision by Louis P. Masur

And here’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the preceeding duo’s consideration of silence: Masur’s book, which actually came out last year and will soon be released in paperback, is, for this Springsteen fan anyway, an automatic purchase and an automatic quick read. Why? Aside from the fact that Born to Run is one of the best albums ever released, and that the title track’s certainly among the very very best songs ever written, and aside from the fact that I’m drawn automatically to book-length considerations of certain albums and songs (this and this, for instance, were both fantastic), and aside from the fact that Springsteen’s among a shockingly small handful of artists who have been publically submitting work for at least four decades yet who still make work that’s compelling and real and worth listening/paying attention to for more than kitschy and/or nostalgic reasons, aside from all that the reason to read the book is simple: Louis P. Masur gives a shit (actually gives a tremendous shit) about Springsteen, and he believes in the magic of Born to Run, and I’ll submit here that one should want to read books written by disinterested, rational sources on everything other than works of art. Is there room for the disinterested art critic? Of course. But this book is Masur’s book, and the book, in the end, fundamentally succeeds or fails based on him more than the art he’s examining.

And does the book succeed? Absolutely: for those of us perhaps borderline unhealthily obsessed with Springsteen (especially his early stuff), the book’s exquisite fun, direct and approachable and sensical. I’d imagine the book would also be exactly the volume one’d be wise to reach for when confronted by someone not already under the Springsteenian spell: Masur’s engaged not just with the music at a song-by-song level (and, often, an instrument-by-instrument level; I discovered/realized more about the actual sound of Born to Run reading this than ever before), but at an ideational level. The other subtitle to this engaging, quick-reading book could be What’s the big fuss about Springsteen, anyway? And the answer, of course, is satisfyingly within.

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