There’s something paradoxical about writing about silence. Reading and writing can be silent activities, after all, but their raw material is the same stuff from which conversations, lectures, and well-choreographed rants can emerge. The importance of silence is something that’s taken on an increased importance in our everyday lives, whether we’re looking to tune out a constant stream of information that makes thinking difficult, or simply endeavoring to get a better grasp on the world around us through the succinct subtraction of spoken words.
Here’s a look at a host of books that offer a host of perspectives on silence – from the way that it can inform a landscape, to the way that it can be used for sacred ends to the means by which knowledge of silence can actually improve our communication with those around us. These are books that may well have us thinking more – even as we speak less.
In the Age of Noise
Over the course of this short, succinct book, author Erling Kagge describes certain aspects of his life, from traveling across Antarctica to starting an upstart publishing company. And while he’s considering silence in relation to the technologically-saturated contemporary world here, he’s also exploring how humans relate to silence in other contexts – making for a host of small epiphanies that accumulate to impressive effect.
Among the subjects raised in Kagge’s book is the discomfort that many of us have with being left alone with nothing to occupy us. In Eva Hoffman’s How to Be Bored, she examines this very phenomenon in-depth, exploring the ways by which what we think of as boredom can ultimately become a way for us to embark on a greater understanding of ourselves or the world around us.
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s writings about his travels in the mid-20th century continue to be read and cherished decades after they were first published. In this short volume, he discusses his habit of spending time in different monasteries as a means of writing – and how this eventually enveloped him in a world of ritual and silence, a sharp contrast to his expected way of living.
22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.
John Francis, PhD
As a result of his environmental activism in the early 1970s, John Francis decided to avoid traveling via powered vehicles; in the years since then, he’s walked across much of the United States. In the midst of that, he also took a 17-year vow of silence. The memoir Planetwalker is the story of this unique approach to life, and the story of what Francis learned along the way.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Among the benefits of embracing silence can be an increase in the amount of time one has for things like meditation and contemplation of one’s place in the world. In Silence, Thich Nhat Hanh takes this approach, examining how finding silence – whether literally or metaphorically – can lead the reader to an increased self-awareness and a growing sense of inner peace.
The Consolations of the Forest is Sylvain Esso’s chronicle of the six months he spent living in solitude in a Siberian cabin. Esso’s descriptions of the landscape around him encompass both the beauty and the harshness found there, but there’s an even more more striking element to this book. Namely, the way in which Esso writes candidly about what a life in isolation – without any of the things we take for granted (conversation, companionship) – is like, and what its lasting effects can be.
Eileen Myles’s writings encompass fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and yet one of Myles’s recurring themes is the limitations of language. See also; this 2009 event that Myles organized around “the possibilities of silence as central to the syntax and punctuation of everyday life.” As Nathan Goldman points out in this essay on Afterglow (a dog memoir), a book about Myles’s dog Rosie, writing about the relationship between humans and dogs emphasizes the importance of nonverbal communication eloquently and movingly.
The writings of John Cage are among those cited in Kagge’s own book on silence. Given that among Cage’s most famous pieces of music is 4’33” – in which a piano is not played for that span of time, and the audience is made aware of the sounds of the space that surrounds them –
this shouldn’t be too shocking. And while Cage is best known as a composer, his work as a writer has also been influential; this collection of his nonfiction touches on some of the same concepts that led to 4’33”.