I live in a quiet house. On a winter’s day, I can hear snow landing on the windowpanes and flames muttering on the stove, tires hissing on the wet street, my cats shifting in their beds. When the weather grows warm, I open the windows, and sometimes a little talk from passersby floats in. Even then, the quiet feels spacious—a place in which my thoughts can roam as I work.
I’m sometimes tempted to believe that this quiet connects me with the past, that the widow who lived in this house a century ago must have also worked in silence, listening to sounds—some similar to what I hear, some particular to her own time—from the street, the yard, and the woods and fields beyond. But, in one essential way, her quiet was different from mine: with the flip of a switch or the tap of a screen, I can hear other voices singing or speaking. Just knowing that I can simply cancel the quiet changes it.
This easy access to sound means that the scope of our worlds differs. From this house, the widow would have heard no one farther away than shouting distance. I gaze out the same windows she did, with their old and watery glass. But I do so while speaking to friends in New York or outside of Boston, to my brother in France, to people throughout the borderless world that gives definition to my life.
How strange it must have been to hear voices separated from place for the first time. The psychologist and art critic Rudolf Arnheim captured some of the wonder and power of it when he recalled sitting outside a café by a harbor, in a southern Italian fishing village, in the nineteen-thirties. “The fishermen, their legs a-straddle, their hands in their pockets and their backs turned to the street, were gazing down on the boats which were just bringing home the catch,” he wrote. “It was very quiet, but suddenly from behind me came a spitting and a spluttering, then screams and squeaks and whistles—the wireless was being tuned in.” The owners of the café, which was situated “in a little Italian place where strangers are almost unknown,” hoped that the sound of the radio—English announcers, a German choir—might attract customers. “The fisherman turned round and listened, even though they could not understand,” Arnheim recalled. They were transfixed, motionless.
In Depression-era rural America, the effect of the radio was no less profound. Those farm families with electricity were relieved to end the silence that accompanied their isolation. “The day we got our radio, we put it in the kitchen window, aimed it out at the fields, and turned it on full blast,” a farm woman remembered. “During the first week, the men hated to be out of the sound of it.”
The radio had come a long way by the nineteen-thirties. The earliest ones, built in the late nineteenth century, had been used mainly to transmit Morse code. The first true audio broadcast occurred on Christmas Eve, 1906, when the Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden, who was based on the coast of Massachusetts, played “O Holy Night” on his violin and read the account of the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. Still, most of Fessenden’s listeners were shipboard wireless operators in the waters off the Eastern Seaboard. In 1910, when another inventor, Lee de Forest, broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera House, hundreds of New Yorkers gathered at listening centers to put on earphones and hear the crackling, distorted voice of Enrico Caruso. Even the first commercial broadcast, in Pittsburgh, on Election Day, 1920, reached a mere thousand listeners, who leaned into their receivers to hear news of Warren Harding’s Presidential victory. Everyone else waited to read the results in the morning papers.
In 1922, when a New York City station played the first known radio advertisement, extolling the virtues of the Hawthorne Court Apartments, in Jackson Heights, Queens, there were some thirty radio stations in the whole country. But radio technology was improving, in part because of innovations during the First World War, and after the war, listeners and broadcasters multiplied. By 1924, there were more than five hundred radio stations; by 1930, forty per cent of American households were tuning in to follow important events in real time, or listening to radio dramas, news, music, weather, and advertising. A decade later, the figure was over eighty per cent.
As it gained in popularity, the radio had its critics, perhaps none more resounding than the Swiss philosopher Max Picard, who was born in the late nineteenth century. For Picard, silence possessed its own reality. “Silence,” he wrote, “is nothing merely negative.”
It is not the mere absence of speech. It is a positive, a complete
world in itself. . . . Silence was there first, before things. It is
as though the forest grew up slowly after it. . . . A bird sings in
the forest. That is not a sound directed against the silence; it is
the bright glance falling from the eye of silence itself on to the
Picard reserved special scorn for the radio. It was, he wrote, a machine for producing “absolute verbal noise. The content hardly matters any longer; the production of noise is the main concern. . . . Even when the radio is turned off the radio-noise seems to go on inaudibly.” Picard would have been particularly distraught to see a radio pointed out toward workers in the field. He idealized a world out of reach of technological progress and the silence in which a farm worker labored: “The generations of the past are with him in their silence.” In his view, modern life, with its incessant hums and chatter, had destroyed silence, rendering it “simply the place into which noise has not yet penetrated” and “a mere interruption of the continuity of noise.” Writing in 1948, he lamented that “silence no longer exists as a world, but only in fragments, as the remains of the world. And as man is always frightened by remains, so he is frightened by the remains of silence.”
When I was a child, growing up on a farm in Massachusetts, the radio marked regularities in my life. The day and week and weekend were divided into unwavering programming schedules. Late-night listening was distinct from that of the morning. I watched television in the living room, usually with my parents and brothers and sister, but the radio was mine, perched next to my ear as I lay in bed at night, the antenna canted toward the window to pick up the Boston stations. When I nudged the dial and tuned into the smooth-talking WMEX d.j., the world that I wanted to be part of came through, “The Boxer” and “Someday Soon” drowning out the wind in the pines beyond our fields.
When the civil-rights activist and congressman John Lewis was young, the radio pointed him toward his future. Reaching him on his family’s Alabama farm in the nineteen-fifties, it introduced him to the social gospel. “On a Sunday morning in early 1955, I was listening to our radio tuned to WRMA out of Montgomery, as always, when on the air came a sermon by a voice I’d never heard before, a young minister from Atlanta,” he wrote. “I didn’t catch the name until the sermon was finished, but the voice held me right from the start . . . He really could make his words sing . . . But even more than his voice, it was his message that sat me bolt upright with amazement.”
And yet the radio narrowed as effectively as it broadened. Female voices were uncommon in its early years, especially among announcers. It was thought that they were irritating, that they contained too much personality, that they couldn’t convey objectivity. In 1928, a radio expert posited that “the speech characteristics of women, when changed to electrical impulses, do not blend with the electrical characteristics of our present-day radio equipment.” Audiences were no longer limited in size by how far the human voice could carry. But this meant that the absence of voices was also amplified, and that the underrepresented risked losing power all the more—another kind of silence. “Wireless is one person speaking without hearing,” Arnheim noted, “and all the rest listening without being able to speak.”
In the nineteen-thirties, Bertolt Brecht had a dream. “Radio is one-sided when it should be two,” he wrote. “It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes.” If the radio could “let the listener speak as well as hear,” he concluded, it could “bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him.”
Later, he came to speak of the radio in less civic, more intimate terms. When Hitler rose to power, Brecht embarked upon a fifteen-year exile from Germany, wandering through Switzerland and France before settling in Denmark. An exile’s world is its own silence. Still, a small radio made it possible for him to eavesdrop on his first language—an invisible connection that exiles and émigrés before him could not have imagined. Brecht’s “Radio Poem” expresses the attachment he felt to his native tongue, even when those speaking it had forced him into exile. The comforts of its familiar cadences were visceral:
You little box, held to me escaping
So that your valves should not break
Carried from house to house to ship from sail to train,
So that my enemies might go on talking to me,
Near my bed, to my pain
The last thing at night, the first thing in the morning,
Of their victories and of my cares,
Promise me not to go silent all of a sudden.
Listening, though, was only a partial consolation. Once Brecht settled with his family on the island of Fünen, in Denmark, he set to work in a whitewashed stable. Although he had his radio with him in exile, the broadcasts couldn’t replicate the sound of his friends talking together, the liveliness of Berlin in the background. “The radio is on every evening and contact with the world has been reestablished,” Brecht wrote. “But I miss the talks . . . ”
I like to imagine Brecht and his friends in a Berlin café, their conversation blending with dozens of others. Multiple conversations unfolding simultaneously make their own kind of music. Back when I was in my twenties, I cooked lunch in a bakery and restaurant in an island town. It was a summer-tourist place, but we were open year-round. Especially in winter, after the noontime rush died down, I used to stand at the door to the dining room and listen to the voices of customers troubling things out or talking town politics, going over finances or gossiping, creating their own psalm. It was the blend of voices blooming and falling that I loved, the music of a break in the day. Believing that I had a small part in making that sound possible helped me stick to the job.
I think now that the sound of those voices was amplified for me because of the routine silence of my own life. That winter, I was living on my own, seven or eight miles outside of town, on a rutted dirt road. If I returned home on a cloud-covered night having forgotten to leave a light on for myself, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face as I walked from my car to the front door. I didn’t have a television; the radio received only a few staticky stations. The fact that I was just out of college and didn’t know who I wanted to be made the world around me feel all the more unbounded.
Every morning, before work, I read or wrote poems in that silent house. The quiet felt palpable and benign, offering space for me to imagine not only the work before me but the work of the future. When I looked up from my papers and gazed through the windows, I saw the marsh hawks hunting low over the gray scrub; I loved the vast, short days. But the nights were different. I was on my own with a silence magnified by the dark. The wildness of the place seemed immense, and I felt small within it. The silence itself felt like a presence, even during storms and high winds. I couldn’t concentrate on much other than my aloneness in that vastness. I see my young self back there, looking for any anchor. I built a roaring fire every night and stared at its ever-changing flames; during the worst nights, I’d pull the blankets from my bed and sleep next to it, not for its warmth but for the comfort of its animate presence.
As the days lengthened, the night’s hold on me lessened. Once April arrived, I’d sit in the doorway to enjoy the warmth of the sun and listen to the surf that I couldn’t see, beyond the dunes, across the road. Come night, I sometimes slept with a window open; the wind had softened, and I could hear foghorns.
By the next winter, I’d left my island life behind and moved to a city. I could go to a poetry reading just about every night, if I wished; I worked in a bookstore and spent hours in other bookstores. This was a world that I wanted to be part of. I was surprised, though, to find that I had trouble adjusting to the noise of a city winter. On the island, snowstorms had magnified the silence. In the city, the reverse was true. My neighbors had shovels and snowblowers. They didn’t even wait until the worst had passed to start digging out.
However fearful silence may be, people have always searched for it. During the third century, in a time far quieter than our own, the Desert Mothers and Fathers preached silence; in the sixth century, Benedict of Nursia included it in his Rule for monastics. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941, but, before that, he lived on and off in New York City. “The atmosphere of the city suddenly became terribly tense with some news that came out of the radios,” he recalls in “The Seven Storey Mountain.” “Before I knew what the news was, I began to feel the tension. For I was suddenly aware that the quiet, disparate murmurs of different radios in different houses had imperceptibly merged into one big, ominous unified voice, that moved at you from different directions and followed you down the street. . . . I heard ‘Germany—Hitler.’ ”
The radio was one of many things Merton was glad to leave behind when he entered the monastery. There, he found his most fruitful silences in the night. “I sit in darkness. I sit in human silence,” he writes, in “The Sign of Jonas.” “Then I begin to hear the eloquent night, the night of wet trees, with moonlight sliding over the shoulder of the church in haze of dampness and subsiding heat.”
Sometimes even those forced into silence discover its complexities. In “Journey Into the Whirlwind,” Yevgenia Ginzburg’s memoir of her time in prison, including two years of solitary confinement, during Stalin’s Great Purge, she describes imposed silence as a kind of torture. She asks, “How much silence / Is there in the world?” And yet she also reports that in silence she “was able to observe the virtuosity that human memory can develop when it is sharpened by loneliness and complete isolation from outside impressions. One remembers with amazing accuracy everything one has ever read, even quite long ago, and can repeat whole pages of books one had believed long forgotten.”
Today we think of silence as elusive, and so have taken to measuring it. In “One Square Inch of Silence,” from 2010, the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton describes what he calls “possibly the quietest place in the U.S.”—a refuge where nature hasn’t been spoiled by our manufactured sounds. We’ve also taken to measuring the destruction that can result when silence is disturbed. In “The Great Animal Orchestra,” from 2013, the musician and naturalist Bernie Krause carries a sound meter into the woods to prove that excessive noise disrupts the performance of bird song.
But we also contend with a kind of noise that doesn’t register on a sound meter. Recently, on a train from Boston to New York, I sat in the quiet car. The woman next to me had two computers and a tablet spread out before her. As the train travelled west, and the southern New England shoreline swept past her window, her index fingers pecked at her keyboards and screens as she rushed to scan and respond. The sun on the water, the surf lapping the shore, her hands moving nearly soundlessly between her various devices—her frenzy felt as intrusive to my hopes for a quiet ride as a loud conversation, and I don’t doubt that some of my own agitation during the trip had to do with the fact that I’m closer to her than to the widow who once lived in my house. I clearly remember the day that I attached the machine I write with to the world, giving away something of the privacy of my work.
If I were granted the chance to live far out on an island, I don’t think the dark and the wind would burrow into me the way they once did; I’ve spent time in remote places since that memorable winter, and have felt at ease. I wonder, though, if I’d have the patience to stay long or to settle in, having habituated myself to the absence of such vastness, the diminishment of which is so essential to my life.