cover image Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives

Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives

Jane Brox. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-544-70248-6

The latest from Brox (Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light) is a gently meandering meditation that juxtaposes monastic and prison silence and solitude to explore silence’s positive and negative aspects, both of which provide “a path to inner life, to beauty and observation and appreciation.” Prison silence and solitude were intended to disorient and discourage community, Brox writes, and many prisoners in solitary confinement suffered mental health consequences, while others noted improvements in concentration and recall. Monastic silence, on the other hand, was meant to emphasize the majesty of the Catholic Mass and shrink attachment to ego. Yet hermit monk Thomas Merton explicitly acknowledged silence could be a tool of fear, control, and hatred, and chafed against his religious order’s command to refrain from publishing. Where one might expect a neat binarism between restorative and punitive silence, Brox skillfully resists depicting one as all good and the other as all bad, showing instead how silence designed to reform and redeem might instead oppress, and how silence designed to strip away attachments to ego and to temporal goods might also distill and reveal one’s character. Brox’s elegant, thoughtful survey of social deployments of silence introduces to readers the continuum of its potential harms and benefits. [em]Agent: Cynthia Cannell, the Cynthia Cannell Literary Agency. (Jan.) [/em]