Sunday, November 27, 2016

Book Review: Noise

Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening
David Hendy

I was thinking of this as a companion book for Bruce Watson's book Light. (I bought it in the same very fine bookstore, too.) By comparison, Hendy's book--though very engagingly and conversationally written--is refreshingly free from Light's literary pyrotechnics. It's also, to give a linguistic point back to Bruce Watson, less focused. That's sort of appropriate. Light is specific; we see what's in front of us. Sound is general; we hear what the world sends us.

I'm not going to try to untangle David Hendy's theses. They're present, but they're not really central to the book. The ubiquity of sound means that Hendy has to ignore as much as he includes. His organization is chronological: he proceeds through time, picking up a sound-related theme in each chapter. It's a good structure, as long as you don't pretend to believe that the theme was the meaningful sound-related thing going on at that time. There would always have been others; it's just that to make room for them Noise would have to have been three hundred thousand pages long instead of three hundred.

As an instance, take chapter 22, "The Beat of a Heart, the Tramp of a Fly". Spatially, it falls about two-thirds of the way through Noise. It begins thus:
In January 1780, a sixty-year-old Edinburgh man walked slowly through the streets of his home city, wheezing and puffing rather alarmingly. As he reached Infirmary Street, just to the south of the Old Town, he turned into Surgeon's Square.
This leads into the development of the stethoscope, with  further excursions toward amplification of sound in general. It's a nifty little essay. The only caveat is that it's only one tiny facet of what was happening in The Wonderful World of Sound (1780-1850), and that therefore there's a lot being left out. Hendy chose to write this particular chapter, in other words, and in so doing chose not to write about the neighs of horses or the chuffing of early steam engines or the clatter of the first telegraph keys or the thunk of the guillotine during the French Revolution or the thunder of the buffalo herds in the last days of their glory or . . .

Understand, I'm not nitpicking because I disliked Noise. On the contrary: I love this stuff! There's a companion BBC radio series which I plan to listen to. Read the book as a sampler rather than pretending that it's really any kind of true, connected "history" and you'll be fine.

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