Does your neighbor’s polka music jangle your nerves? Have you tried reasoning, threatening, even legal action, all to no avail? Have you convinced yourself that you will get used to the torture in time? Garrett Keizer doesn’t support your optimism, nor does he believe that you are optimistic. Rather, he will tell you that you have given up on establishing your right to peace and quiet, and that you feel weak and unable to defend yourself against a violation of that right. Keizer quotes a report in Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile that claims “one of the things you can’t do to increase your happiness is ‘get used’ to a distressing noise. If anything, the noise will make you unhappier as time goes on.”
For a brief time several decades ago, the trendy cause was noise pollution. Interest in reducing noise lasted about 15 minutes, and then we moved on to more pressing issues like war and famine. Keizer agrees that noise is not the most important problem we face today, but it is certainly more important than most of us realize. “Noise carries a number of adverse and well-documented physiological consequences: deafness, tinnitus, high blood pressure, heart disease, low birth-weight, even statistically significant reductions in life span,” Keizer points out. Shouldn’t the Centers for Disease Control be looking into this?
It’s hard to get a handle on noise, though, because the definition is unclear. One woman’s noise is another woman’s crowing rooster, you see. I’m sure some of my neighbors find poultry songs annoying as heck, but others enjoy the farm-like quality of my birds’ crooning. Without agreed-upon criteria, it’s impossible to regulate noise.
Even if we could regulate such a thing, there is no end to noise. Machinery, automobiles, industry, conversation – all the events and actions of our 21st-century life are noisy, whether or not they are loud. These sounds are so much a part of our lives that most of us are uncomfortable in the brief moments when we are not inundated by whirring, buzzing, and screeching. Keizer writes: “It has been suggested that technically advanced, media-saturated societies condition their members to find any kind of quietness unnatural and every kind of activity deficient that lacks a musical soundtrack.” If you doubt that, try turning off all the electronics in your home and sitting in silence.
The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want is likely the most comprehensive study of noise you’ll find anywhere. The author certainly seems to cover every base. If he sometimes wanders off on a tangent, that little ramble is made up for by some very specific and entertaining resources at the end of the book. A Time Line of Noise History begins 3.5 million years ago (volcano eruption), covers the 1972 U.S. Noise Control Act (bet you didn’t know about that), reminds us that noise has been used as torture (1989, loud music used to flush Manuel Noriega out of his lair), and carries on into the future (2020, European Union target date for preserving quiet areas). Keizer’s Personal Noise Code is practical and thought-provoking, extending noise control into areas most of us haven’t considered, such as political campaigns.
The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want is certainly unique among the books I’ve read lately. It is surprisingly fast-paced and far more entertaining than one might expect. On the surface, it wouldn’t seem like a topic of widespread interest, but Garret Keizer has done a masterful job of revealing the unexpected ways in which sounds – whether we consider them noise or soundtrack—are shaping our culture and affecting our personal bubbles.