Book Review: Silence

A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives

by Jane BroxHoughton Mifflin Harcourt
reviewed by Jennifer Haupt
Book cover

There are many kinds of silence, not all of them occurring in solitude, some charged with emotion more powerful than words. This is evident in Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, by Jane Brox.

This thoughtful journey through the history of silence begins in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829, with an experiment. Highway robbers, horse thieves, and murderers were kept in complete isolation for the duration of their sentences—no communication with even the guards, no letters written or received. The reader walks through the door of the long-abandoned granite facade with Brox on a cold November day. Her descriptions are vivid, her emotions palpable as she chronicles the life of the first of nine prisoners to spend years hearing “no more than small scurryings in the walls or the sighs of his own making.”

Brox is intelligent and inquisitive as she intertwines investigations of the punitive role silence has played in the American penitentiary system and the monastic spiritual connection to God that solitude has provided throughout history. She draws extensively on the work of Thomas Merton and his questioning of the transformative power of silence, as well as other lesser-known spiritual writers. All this makes for a fascinating read.

Silence has become a valuable commodity in modern times, as Brox points out toward the end of her investigation. She writes: “Even as contemporary life pushes silence to the corners, a longing for it persists, as does faith that it offers something the noise of the world cannot provide.” Brox goes on to divulge her own discovery of the importance of silence, and she leaves us wanting more—both of her writing and of the quiet. —Jennifer Haupt

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