But the impossibility of silence says something about why it remains so alluring. Noise-related annoyances stem from emotion—frustration, disorientation, fear—as much as actual audible irritation. During late nineteenth-century industrialization, “The noise of [the railroad’s] steam whistle,” writes Emily Thompson in The Soundscape of Modernity, “was disturbing not only for its loudness but also for its unfamiliarity.” When a 1926 study determined that an individual horse and carriage was actually louder than an individual automobile, The New York Times perceptively responded that the it was not the nature of the sounds that was the trouble, but the fact that “the ear has not learned how to handle them.” In a 1929 poll of New Yorkers, noises identified as “machine-age inventions” were the ones that bothered them most. And by the late 1920s, activists and engineers had a way to quantify their irritations. In 1929, the decibel was established as standard unit of sound. Science contributes to noisiness in more than just audible output: New means of measuring heightened peoples’ awareness of their aggravation.
For what it’s worth, I wrote about this topic in my book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, at first in the context of the history of reading aloud:
This much is clear: the more noise surrounds us, the harder it is to read aloud. Reading aloud, and still more murmured reading, requires a quiet enough environment that you can hear what you speak; otherwise it is a pointless activity. And it might be worth pausing here to note that city life has always been loud — that is not an artifact of modern times. Bruce R. Smith’s extraordinary study The Acoustic World of Early Modern England gives us a full and rather disorienting sense of just how cacophonous the world was for many of our ancestors half-a-millennium ago. And Diana Webb in her book Privacy and Solitude in the Middle Ages argues, convincingly, that many people, men and women alike, sought monastic life less from piety than from a desperate need to find refuge from all the racket. Maybe they just wanted to find a place where they could be left alone to read.
The conclusion we may draw from all this is simply this: the noisier the environment, the more readers are driven to be silent. It is only in “privacy and solitude” that reading aloud or murmuring can ever be a reasonable option, and rarely have our ancestors had that option. The boy trying to study at the kitchen table while the clamor of family life goes on around him is a typical figure in the history of reading. No one could plausibly claim that we late-moderns are uniquely challenged in this respect: surely a higher percentage of human beings today have regular access to silence that at any time in human history. Most Americans and Western Europeans, and many people elsewhere — not all, mind you — live in environments with quiet rooms, or quiet corners. And many who lack quiet homes have had access to libraries, which have for centuries been dedicated, as it were, to silence.
For the thrilling conclusion of my thoughts on this subject, you’ll just have to buy the book. (Spoiler alert: not everyone wants to keep libraries quiet.)