“A Book About Noise”

I’ve just finished another book dealing with one of my pet gripes, noise: The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise, by Garret Keiser.  It approaches the subject from a perspective that has barely been touched upon by other books dealing with it, namely its social and economic implications. To me, Keiser’s most important point is that there’s a direct relationship between the amount of noise we encounter and economic inequality. He asserts that an egalitarian culture is a quiet culture, and vice-versa, an idea that I find intriguing because it leads my thinking on the subject of noise into a whole new realm.

Keiser points out a paradox, namely that anyone who objects to noise is often characterized as a crank, yet there’s a premium associated with living in a quiet place. Which is to say, property values decline in the vicinity of airports, race car tracks, and freeways. Read the classified real estate ads and notice how often a home’s  location in a “quiet neighborhood” is included as an important selling point. The implication of this paradox is that those who are most subject to noise are the most powerless. If you’re poor, good luck at getting anyone to respond to your complaints about excess noise.

The word “noise” is itself open to interpretation. As Keiser notes, the general definition of noise is the sounds you don’t want to hear. On Lummi Island, where I live, the sound of breezes stirring the leaves on a summer day is a sweet sound. On the other hand, the constant dull roar of a winter nor’easter becomes a maddening noise in quick order.  Being a water lover and a boat person, the sound of loud boats bothers me less than the continuous passage of propeller-driven aircraft overhead. The airplanes are an irritation, whereas the boats stir my nostalgia. They usually are not nearly as loud as the aircraft, either.

Keiser devotes a chapter to the subject of a Harley rally that he attended in the town of Sturgis, South Dakota. He said one thing that surprised him was the high level of politeness he observed amongst the riders present. One of them saw him standing by the street edge, actually stopped, and yelled over the roar of his vehicle, “Would you like to cross the street.”

The beauty of the beast

Later in the book Keiser defines “silliness” as knowing perfectly well that something you’re doing is wrong, or doesn’t make sense, but you do it anyway. He uses the noise of the aforementioned motorcycle rally as an example. As I interpret his view, politeness of the crowd there can be understood as a compensatory act to distract from behavior that in most circles is unacceptable . Which is to say, you offend everyone within 100 yards with your racket, then act super polite. . . or raise money for charitable causes, as Harley clubs have been known to do, in order to defuse anyone’s annoyance at your obvious transgression of normal standards of social consideration.

An example of this “silliness” from my own life similarly concerns the intrusive racket of loud motorcycles roaring up the hill next to my house. One day I observed a neighbor of mine mounting his “rig,” and plugging earplugs into his ears before donning his cycle helmet. (This is an otherwise considerate, pleasant and public-spirited guy) I wanted to ask him, but didn’t, “If you need ear plugs to handle the roar of the vehicle you’re riding, why would you think your neighbors would enjoy it as you pass by? He knows that noise is annoying, can damage his hearing, or raise his (and your) blood pressure, and he knows it well enough to bother protecting himself, yet does not offer the same consideration to his neighbors. This, if I understand Keiser’s view correctly, is “silliness,” paralleling accusations mothers make of their kids when they do thoughtless things.

In case I’ve offended any motorcycle buffs, let me add that my driver’s license carries a motorcycle endorsement, and I have nothing whatever against motorcycles in general or Harleys in particular, other than when their racket intrudes on my property and peace.

Absorbing Keiser’s book took concentration on my part because he arrives at his conclusions by sometimes circuitous reasoning interjected at unexpected times with humorous asides. These would catch me off guard so that I needed to stop and think about whether that was a subtle dig or a straight statement. He’s someone who obviously hates noise but is attempting to be fair and objective about it. (Personally, I don’t even want to be fair, I want them to shut up!) But, it’s a rewarding read, especially if you’re a noise “crank.” It opened my mind to aspects of the subject that heretofore have only lurked on the wings of my musings. If noise is an issue in your life, or you’d just enjoy a new perspective on it, give this book a try.

Kevin Jones