Quiet Time

Alumni3 MIN READ

Jane Brox ’78 explores the history of silence, delivering a message that deserves to be heard amid the din

By Kristin Yorke ’20
June 8, 2019

Critically acclaimed author Jane Brox ’78 follows up her social history of artificial light with a powerful and compelling history of something we—a gaggle of constantly gossiping, vlogging, and hollering humans—rarely acknowledge: silence.

Silence book cover
Jane Brox ’78
Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2019)

The idea first came to Brox after a visit to the Cistercian abbey of Sénanque in the south of France in 2001: “I was so taken by its architecture and the complex understanding of silence that made up the foundation of that world that I wanted to understand it more deeply.”

Truly grasping institutional silence, its origins, and its implications came more than a decade later for Brox after a visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pa. Originally a prison built strictly for solitary confinement, opened in 1829, Eastern State imposed silence as an instrument of reflection, repentance, and surveillance. Benjamin Rush, prison reform advocate and original mastermind behind Eastern State, advocated for the benefits of silence. Brox writes of Rush’s vision: “The hardened criminal and the first-time offender, the housebreaker and the murderer, would all be subject to the same sentence of silence and solitude, differing only in length.”

Imposed silence such as that enforced at Eastern State is juxtaposed in Brox’s text with silence as a spiritual tool. Brox harkens back to her original inspiration for Silence— the Cistercian monastery. Her discussion of the monastic vow of silence, the unadorned, balanced spaces in the monastery, and the impact silence had on daily life (monks in the Middle Ages used a variety of hand symbols to communicate) is a stark comparison to the vivid images of Charles Williams, Eastern State’s first prisoner, trapped, utterly alone in at vast, empty cavern of solitude.

This tug-of-war between the imposed and the chosen was what drew Brox to craft this history. “I saw how a book could navigate between those two worlds,” she says. “I came to see chosen and imposed silence as not entirely opposites: They also at times share the same qualities.”

The book does not exist as five stand-alone parts to one whole. Rather, Brox builds off each previous chapter with delicate and crafty comparisons weaved and slipped within the text. Her writing makes the history all the more engaging and thoughtful.

The history is as timely as it is intelligent. In a world where we are never truly alone (thanks, Alexa), Brox claims, “like darkness, silence is disappearing quickly from our world.” Perhaps, then, we should be thankful that she got it down on paper.

New York Times Book Review: The Case for Covering Your Ears in Noisy Times