I’m referring to a growing library of self-help guides for the self-care generation. Clothed in minimalist cover jackets, bathed in soft hues, these books promise calm and reprieve: “Silence: In the Age of Noise,” “The Longing for Less” and “How to do Nothing.” Titles that once might have disappeared in lifestyle bins are now prominently displayed among the week’s bestsellers. The literature of silence is having its moment, and for this reader, it feels especially resonant.
I began my journalism career as a public radio producer, and I recall a terrifying orientation lecture about the professional liability of “dead air.” Radio silence was to be avoided at all costs, and if a few seconds of blank sound sneaked onto the airwaves, emergency procedures would be initiated, and penalties could follow. Manipulating, layering and delivering noise became my medium.
More than a decade later, a little silence, any kind of silence, can seem like a blessing. With the rise of podcasting and on-demand audio, certainly there is no lack of things to listen to. Infinite conversations and chatty companions are available at any time in any place. Despite the ascent of my own medium, I’ve found myself overwhelmed and exhausted by this sonic boom.
I’m tempted to dismiss my growing obsession with books about silence as a frivolous longing for “chicken soup for an angsty soul.” But the rise of this family of books speaks to a real need — and void — in contemporary life. Silence is more than the absence of noise. It is the cumulative experience of personal space and a mind at rest, with room to think and contemplate. For a long time, I thought I was alone in my inability to be present. I confess to a smartphone addiction and an unhealthy volume of streaming, bingeing and reading restlessness. When I bought my first guide to silence, aptly titled “Silence,” by the Norwegian writer and explorer Erling Kagge, I was comforted to learn that I wasn’t alone in my struggle. Kagge’s book was a visual feast of hazy horizons and poetic sentences about the value of silence. “Shutting out the world is not about turning your back on your surroundings,” he writes, “but rather the opposite: it is seeing the world a bit more clearly, staying a course and trying to love your life.”
Two years after it was first published, “Silence” is in its eighth printing and has been translated into 37 languages. Meanwhile, similarly themed books have proliferated. New Yorker writer David Owen’s “Volume Control” warns that loud noise in the modern world has become a deafening threat to our physical and emotional health, with the sound in city bars and restaurants turned up to toxic decibels by design.
The artist Jenny Odell’s “How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” appeared on literary influencer Barack Obama’s recent list of favorite books. In her elegant tome on the dangers of Big Tech’s exploitation of the “attention economy,” Odell writes that “solitude, observation and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.”
Georgetown professor Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” provides a step-by-step guide to online withdrawal in pursuit of deeper work. And, in January, journalist Kyle Chayka published “The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism,” a travelogue through the art history of minimalism movements, including an entire section devoted to silence.
What unites these books is the authors’ alarm that the sheer volume of physical, digital and political “noise” is fraying our state of mind. Some authors offer practical solutions to restoring balance; others offer more poetic ruminations. Chayka traces a geographic path to quietude, writing about the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto, where soft footsteps through rock gardens and Buddhist temples offer a seductive vision of paradise.
But fetishizing silence as a destination runs the risk of turning noise-cancellation into a mere commodity. Meditation rooms and sound baths are arriving in cities, and expensive silent retreats are already a pillar of the wellness industrial complex. If silence becomes a luxury good, is it a worthwhile aspiration as these books suggest?
The quietest place I’ve ever lived is Germany, where sound regulations, urban forests and the occasional act of public shushing creates a different sonic landscape. I recently returned to Berlin to work on a radio documentary about my search for silence. On my first day, I was surprised to discover a mirror image of the D.C. bookstore where I began this reading project. In a small neighborhood shop, Kagge’s book on silence was prominently displayed in German and English. When I later interviewed Kagge about the international success of his book, he told me, “What it says is that it’s a global phenomenon, that people feel cheated by circumstances and that they really need silence in their lives.” Kagge famously walked to the South Pole alone, and he said it was an unsettling experience. “Man has always been scared of silence. And the reason, of course, is because in the silence, you meet yourself, while in the noise, you live through other people. Noise will always be the easiest option.”
As with most self-help books, it is impossible to live up to the prescriptions for sonic reduction. Somewhere among the discipline of abrupt digital withdrawals, walks to the South Pole and the structural blame on booming cities is the unavoidable rhythm of daily life. Each of us has a different tolerance for noise and available time for silence. But in applying small lessons from each of these books, I’ve discovered the possibilities lurking in the radio silence I once feared.
In choosing the book form to explore noise, these authors are making an implicit argument for reading as the ultimate gift of silence. The reader who appears quiet to the outsider knows the symphonic river of ideas and conversations that flow between the pages of a great book.
Now armed with silence as an orientation rather than a sonic condition, I find myself experiencing books, films and conversations through a new filter. I’m now inspired to spend even more time with writers that make space to think and consider rather than rattle with the noise of certitude. Given their popularity, the self-help sections devoted to silence are destined to grow with even more beautiful books to purchase. I’m learning to resist the consumption temptation and quietly practice what I’ve already read, and now preached.
Bilal Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times and Newsweek and on NPR.