Volume Control

David Owen’s new book Volume Control is pretty good, but it made me think way too much about my own hearing. (“Do I have tinnitus? I don’t think I have tinnitus … oh crap, I have tinnitus.”) Here’s one little bit I enjoyed:

In 2018, a reddit user asked hard-of-hearing reddit users what had surprised them the most when they first got hearing aids or cochlear implants. Among the answers: farts; toilet flushes; peeing; refrigerators; the fact that sunlight doesn’t make a sound; the fact that falling rain makes a sound but falling snow does not; the annoying loudness of typing and other routine office activities; cloth rubbing against cloth; hair brushing against hearing-aid microphones; cutlery scraping on dinner plates; clocks ticking; the silence of sharks; the relative silence of cabinet hinges; that vocal intonation can be used to distinguish sincerity from sarcasm; that fire doesn’t sound like a continuous explosion; that voices don’t all sound the same; that songs have intelligible lyrics; that music is more than its bass line; that grocery stores play background music; and “What’s weird is, boobs don’t make a noise, you really think they would.”

I’m pretty sure that only a heavy Reddit user would think that boobs ought to make a noise. (What noise?) But I love the surprises about the quietness of fire and the silence of snow.

The one thing that I wish Owen had gone into more: the effects, psychological and physiological, of the constant booming and grinding and yakking of the world we live in, the near-impossibility, for billions of human beings, of finding silence. (I read the book because I thought that would be among its chief subjects, but no. It’s almost exclusively about aural pathologies and their possible remedies.) Our own moment is not unique in this respect: if you read Bruce Smith’s The Acoustic World of Early Modern England you’ll wonder how any medieval Englishperson managed to remain sane. Still, all the evidence says that noise is debilitating to us. I’d like to know more about that.