The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want by Garrett Keizer

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The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want by Garrett Keizer

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Flipping
Reviewed by Sue Flipping
Summary: Fascinating and thought provoking, a 'must read' for anyone who lives with, near, or even as far away as possible from, anything that makes a noise.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Public Affairs
ISBN: 978-1586485528

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What is noise? Do we count birdsong at sunrise as noise? And if so, what different term would we use to describe a jet aircraft taking off? Why do we respond so differently to the two? Even more intriguingly, would our response change if the birdsong woke us from an exhausted sleep but the aircraft was taking off to jet us on a long awaited holiday?

These questions are simply the starting point for The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want. From there, Garret Keizer considers the different functions of noise and how 21st century civilization can neither live with, nor without, the amount of noise it now creates.

In 1960, during the debate about expansion at Heathrow Airport, the then aviation minister Duncan Sandys was quoted as saying We must resign ourselves to the fact that noise and power go hand in hand.

In a well observed series of examples, Keizer explores that link between noise and power: mechanical power, political power and social power. As civilization has become more mechanized, the amount of noise it creates increases also. From the first man to bang one flint against another to the roar of a rocket headed for the moon, our desire to improve our lives has been accompanied by ever louder sounds.

The human cost has been huge. Keizer notes the ill health of early factory workers in the days before health and safety laws required a restriction on the amount of noise made by machinery. Hearing loss is a fairly obvious effect and he notes that 'Boilermakers disease' is a euphemism for deafness. But some of the effects of loud noise on the human body are less obvious. Take the example of music at a gym. It's played loudly because the human body will respond by making more adrenaline. That is great if you are working out. But what if you are not pumping iron and your ears are subjected to loud noise? Unfortunately, the brain still produces higher levels of adrenaline, the fight or flight chemical. If you do not use that adrenaline through physical endeavour, it surges around the body creating high levels of stress. Loud noise can make you ill.

Despite this, people are known willingly to subject themselves to loud noise (the adrenaline junkies?). From rock concerts to iPods, youngsters, in particular, pay little attention to the potential damage to their ears. Keizer quotes a survey showing that one in eight Americans teenagers are already suffering hearing impairment. Are they 'enjoying' increased noise or increased sounds? For Keizer, there is a clear difference: the unwanted one is noise, the wanted one is sound. So the fan of a heavy metal band will come out of a gig saying 'what a great sound' whilst the neighbours will be complaining about 'the terrible noise'.

In political terms, those who make the biggest noise are usually the ones with power, literally and metaphorically. Manufacturing machinery rarely belongs to the people who operate it; the owners are the ruling classes. They own the means of power and thereby gain power. Meanwhile, the workers on the shop floor are silenced; literally by the noise of the machinery and politically because they do not own the noise makers.

In a startling example, Keizer quotes research showing that children at an American school whose classroom was next to a railway line could not read as well as pupils at the same school whose classroom was in a quieter part of the school. What are the implications for youngsters who spend their early years living in cramped conditions where there is no escape from the noise of other people and their machines?

Finally, there are the sociological implications of noise. Keizer notes that male hobbies are frequently associated with noise. The motorcyclist, the football supporter, even the gardener with his petrol driven lawn mower. In effect, they are continuing the patriarchal society where the noise of the dominant male drowns out everyone else's.

While Keizer's observations are in the majority concerned with Western civilization and, in particular, North America, he takes us through history and across the world in his hunt for instances of how noise is both created by and affects different societies and civilisations. From the first civic ordinance to control noise in 1st century BC Rome to the world's largest motorbike rally in South Dakota, from a case of suicidal chickens to Nazi rallies, he combines first hand personal experience with wide reading on sounds and noise in all their variances.

Finally, Keizer addresses the question of where we go from here. Keizer, clearly, wants to go into a quieter world. He makes no secret his antipathy to noise, particularly where it serves no wider benefit to the community. He recognizes, however, the impossibility of trying through legislation to force everyone to quieten down. To return to Duncan Sandys quote, Keizer accepts that noise and power go hand in hand, but he sees no reason why we should be resigned to it.

The final third of the book is, unusually, taken up with resources. As one would expect, there is a bibliography and a notes section. There is also, optimistically, a 'noise code' that Keizer encourages readers to subscribe to; an advice section on tackling noise disputes and a list of organizations involved in noise abatement.

This is a fascinating and thought provoking book. It is, at times, repetitive and there are points where Keizer seems to struggle to tease out individual ideas. Ultimately, though, it is a book that every one living within earshot of another human being (or the noise they make) should read.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading:

The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do without it by Philip Ball

Why Do People Get Ill?: Exploring the Mind-body Connection by Darian Leader and David Corfield

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

Booklists.jpg The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want by Garrett Keizer is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2010.

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