“ Ssshh!” I looked up. Under a humming fluorescent light at her old oak desk, the librarian was frowning at me with her finger on her lips. “Ssshh,” she said again.
I was only eight, and I had excitedly expressed my enthusiasm while showing my best friend the latest Hardy Boys novel. My friend looked at the librarian, and then at me, expectantly. We both shushed.
I loved the library, a source of rich and valuable entertainments. I didn’t quite understand the reiterated need for quiet within its precincts, but shushing seemed a fair enough exchange for access to all the goodies it offered.
Then, noise seemed human, inevitable, an accepted part of the tongue tumble and traffic rumble of everyday life. Now even humming fluorescents sometimes bother me.
In theory, communication transmits a message or information via some kind of code through a medium to a decoder that ultimately allows the reproduction and interpretation of the message. Along the way, however, one almost always finds noise, a destructive element that degrades information, preventing its accurate reception.
In human conversation, thought gets coded into language which is transmitted through speech or writing. In electronic media, physical sound waves are digitized and electronically transmitted to a receiver that decodes the message and reconstitutes it into sound or print.
Noise can interfere in either system. Though speech or writing may be technically accurate, jargon such as legalese or medical terminology might prevent comprehension. The messenger might have a speech defect or a poor vocabulary. A bystander might interrupt. Perhaps there is too much ambient sound.
No wonder the communications joke runs, “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell observed that English “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Everyday speech shrinks into clichés, and political speech becomes various forms of coded propaganda.
Our electronic media add to the problem: advertisers hector and seduce, social media mine personal data to comfort us with preferred interests, and e-mail jumbles our inboxes with essential and unwanted babble.
The physical world reflects this dynamic paradigm. Romantic artists and traditional knowledge of First Nations argue that nature speaks to us if we will only listen. But are we prepared for the effort that takes, even if we can create the opportunity?
We go camping with our iPhones and rumble down highways pulling our fifth wheels. Bird song and the gurgle of flowing water are drowned out by quad engines and boat motors. Droning lawn mowers and shrieking chain saws contaminate quiet Sundays.
Medscape.com reports that nearly one child in eight has hearing impairment in one or both ears, often due to extended exposure to personal music players. Children exposed to chronic noise develop elevated blood pressure and higher levels of stress hormones. Research shows that cognitive and language development in children from noisy homes is diminished.
Although uninterrupted sleep is a prerequisite for good physical and mental health, we are often wakened in the night by cars with boom boxes, the growling and crashing of railroad trains, and the wailing of sirens. What good is the right to privacy without the right to quiet?
In major cities such as Manhattan, undifferentiated white noise never stops. It exists as an ongoing hum, punctuated by the sharpness of local car horns or music.
A standard method of torture is to deprive the detainee of sleep and subject him to a barrage of discontinuous, ugly, loud noise. But we live in a tortured world.
I’m now much fonder of my strict old librarian. We need to save quiet spaces, to think, and to listen to what is truly meaningful. Ssshh.
Al Lehmann is a retired Terrace, B.C. English teacher.