As any fan of his work will tell you, the prolonged silences in Harold Pinter’s plays reveal as much about his characters as the dialogue they exchange. In everyday life, silence usually isn’t that foreboding, but it can be just as revelatory. And as complex: The same stillness that offers solace from the relentless whirl of daily distractions can also be a tormentor when one has trouble falling asleep.
Erling Kagge, a Norwegian explorer and publisher, discovered decades ago that he has “a primal need for silence.” He examines this need and its many manifestations in “Silence: In the Age of Noise.”
His obsession began when, after he gave a lecture in Scotland on the importance of silence, he went to a pub with some students. The three questions they most wanted him to address form the basis of this book: “What is silence? Where is it? Why is it more important now than ever?”
In 33 short chapters, he recounts the extremes he has gone to in search of answers. The first person ever to walk alone on the South Pole, he spent 50 days in Antarctica and found not the flat uniformity he had anticipated but “countless shades of white.” The trip taught him to “value minuscule joys. The nuanced hues of the snow. The wind abating. Formations of clouds. Silence.”
From the North Pole and the summit of Mount Everest to Sri Lanka and the coast of Chile, Kagge investigates the wonder and mystery of silence. He writes in a chatty, accessible style and with a healthy dose of humor, even when discussing philosophical subjects. When he cites Heidegger’s contention that one grows nearer to others through truth rather than technology, Kagge writes, “Having tried my hand at internet dating, I am inclined to agree with Heidegger.”
This volume also includes photographs from Kagge’s travels and reproductions of Ed Ruscha paintings, including works that set the words NOISE and SPACE in thick yellow lettering against a deep blue background. The paintings are brilliant, but their incorporation here is a too obvious way to emphasize points that Kagge makes with more elegance in his prose.
“Silence” may not be groundbreaking, but it still offers thoughtful meditations on the importance of “pausing to breathe deeply, shut out the world and use the time to experience ourselves.” You don’t have to go all the way to Sri Lanka to find silence, Kagge writes; “you can experience it in your bathtub.” The important thing, he argues, is to seek out those contemplative moments and pay attention to their message.
“That which is vital, which is unique, is already within you,” Kagge writes. The trick is to pause long enough to hear it.
Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Newsday.
Silence: In the Age of Noise
By: Erling Kagge, translated from the Norwegian by Becky L. Crook.
Publisher: Pantheon, 143 pages, $19.95.