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A Book About Noise

by Garret Keizer

Pub Date: May 4th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-58648-552-8
Publisher: PublicAffairs

The history of six millennia of human-produced noise and an examination of its political and cultural implications today.

Harper’s contributing editor Keizer (Help: The Original Human Dilemma, 2004, etc.) cites the Epic of Gilgamesh as the first recorded instance of humans being too noisy for their own good—civilization’s uproar was so unbearable to the gods that they decided to destroy it. Using anecdotes and stories gathered from individuals, as well as insights from such experts as physicists, engineers, musicologists, physicians and psychologists, the author ranges wide in his exploration of the phenomenon of noise. It is, he argues, a defining force in our world. Often dismissed as a “weak” issue, a minor nuisance, noise is often an expression of power, and it is the lives of the weak, or powerless, that are affected most. The din of the developing world, writes Keizer, is greater than what the richer nations will ever experience. However, “[i]f we equate noise with power and clout…America is the loudest country in the world today, probably the loudest that has ever existed. And yes, I love my country, even as I also love midtown Manhattan, my chainsaw, and the Rolling Stones.” A wind farm near Mars Hill, Maine, a motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., a jazz festival in Newport, R.I.—all are examples of what may be a lovely sound to someone and unbearable noise to another. Although Keizer focuses mostly on the United States, he also looks abroad, citing examples of noise and its control in the Netherlands, Ireland, Japan and other countries. In addition to extensive notes, the back matter contains a glossary, decibel ratings of common sounds, a list of organizations that deal with noise and a section offering strategies for handling noise disputes.

Keizer casts a broad net, gathering data from numerous sources in time and space, but his take-home message is simple—for a better, more pleasant world, tone it down.