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The best books on Silence

recommended by Sara Maitland

Modern Western societies often seem to be intolerant of silence. Why should this be? And is there any alternative? The author of "A Book of Silence" explains

Sara Maitland

Moving to Scotland into a solitary house on the remote moors of Galloway, Sara Maitland now lives the life of quiet she celebrates in her latest book, A Book of Silence. The book is an examination of the importance of silence, its cultural history, and the aversion contemporary society has to it. Although she is now a nonfiction writer, she also has a large bibliography of novels and short stories.

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Sara Maitland

Moving to Scotland into a solitary house on the remote moors of Galloway, Sara Maitland now lives the life of quiet she celebrates in her latest book, A Book of Silence. The book is an examination of the importance of silence, its cultural history, and the aversion contemporary society has to it. Although she is now a nonfiction writer, she also has a large bibliography of novels and short stories.

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How do you understand the term ‘silence’?

Well on one level, it’s very simple – silence is just an absence of noise. But actually it’s a bit more complicated than that. In the dictionary, silence can be defined in two separate ways, as either an absence of language or an absence of all noise. What I’m interested in is the reduction in the amount of man-made noise – and particularly speech. This is mostly because there are very few places, except perhaps outer space, where there is actual, physical silence.

You now live a pretty silent life. Is A Book of Silence autobiographical?

Bits of it are autobiographical, but it’s also based upon the research I did into the concept of silence and its cultural history. I have lived in southwest Scotland, in London and in Oxford in the past, which were too noisy for me. Around the millennium year I moved north and started looking for the house I now have. I moved in two years ago. It is in Galloway, far away from anyone else. I love being alone, I love being silent, and I love certain kinds of landscape, very austere, empty. Living in solitude has taught me a lot about the importance of silence, and some of this obviously informs the book.

The Desert Fathers is about an early society who opted to live in silence. Tell us why you picked this book.

The reason I chose this book is because the Sinai desert is one of the most silent places in the world. Because the climate is very warm and dry, it isn’t easy to inhabit and consequently it is very quiet. It’s into this environment that the early Christians headed to experiment with what difference leading a silent life makes, and, specifically, what the effects of silence on prayer might be.

“What I’m interested in is the reduction in the amount of man-made noise – and particularly speech.”

What the desert travellers were up to is actually very similar in a way to what the Buddhists do: seeking inner peace and love of God. They were also seeking the meaning of kindness and hospitality – if anyone were to turn up in the desert then they would welcome them fondly. Their adventure is something Waddell describes with heartbreaking empathy.

On the subject of Buddhism, your second book is written by a Buddhist. Tell us about it.

Palmo is a contemporary Buddhist, who has spent a great deal of time, including a solid three-year stint, in complete silence. She lived for 12 years really on the snow line, in a little cave in the Himalayas. This book is a collection of her thoughts on Buddhism, and a practical guide in how to be silent. She has this commitment that ties with me, because she is interested in finding out about the place of the female in the Buddhist tradition. She is a very modest writer. When she was asked what three years in silence was like, all she said was that ‘it wasn’t boring’.

That sounds like a lonely experience. Is silence inevitably connected to solitude?

It is quite likely to be, but no, not inevitably. There are very few people, and I’m not one of them, who are good at communicating silently. The Trappist monks live almost entirely silently, but at the same time very communally (they sleep in dorms and don’t have any personal privacy). In theory it can be done, but in practice I think that silence will usually be accompanied by solitude. I don’t like the popular idea that solitude is a retreat from society though. It’s one of the reasons I chose this book actually, because I don’t think that is what’s going on. It’s like saying that you go on holiday to retreat from work, which is just not a useful way to look at it. The solitary life is similarly not a retreat.

Tell us about your next book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

One of the other things that, for me, goes very much with silence, although it’s not the same for everybody, is a deepening of the experience of nature and understanding of ecology. This book, which won the Pulitzer literature prize when it was released, is the most beautiful book about the wild. Dillard spent quite a long time in this small area in a particular valley called Tinker Creek in Virginia, America. She just recorded what she saw and what she thought about it, and this book is a collection of her observations. And it’s a very lovely book because it takes on the ferocity of nature and is very unsentimental, while at the same time being very beautiful. I think that she would say, and I would say, that being silent actually allows you to see the world more clearly. It’s often said that silent people have more acute hearing, and I think that they have a more acute sense of sight too. She just notices everything.

The next book is also about nature. Describe Sea Room.

Yes, it’s another ‘in the wild’ book. Nicolson inherited these tiny islands called the Shiants, which are in the Hebrides in Northwest Scotland. They belonged to his father and Nicolson has now given them to his son. Over the years he has spent a lot of time there, obviously, and this is the book he wrote about them. I like it because these islands at first sight appear to be in the absolute back end of nowhere. They are difficult to get to, way out in the wild and dangerous sea, and they are also really hostile, tiny and rocky. And yet Nicolson has found layer upon layer of history there, evidence of people being there for many different reasons. Some of them have been hermits, but also he has found evidence of farming and even settlements. Another reason I think I like it so much is because it’s actually very similar to what I do. He has had a prolonged experience with the islands, like I have with the moors where I live now. This kind of relationship affects the way you feel about a place, built up over time. It’s a fascinating relationship.

Your last book, Mountains of the Mind, is also about a prolonged relationship – Robert Macfarlane’s relationship with the mountains. Tell us a bit about it.

I think he’s one of our great ‘new nature writers’, who are the people writing contemporarily about the environment. It’s difficult to say what it’s about in a few sentences but I think what he’s really getting at is just the idea that to be in high and dangerous places is a beautiful and exciting experience. He used to be a climber, although he doesn’t climb any more, and in the book he is interested in what makes people do this highly dangerous thing. It also has a lot of cultural history about mountains, about the various ways different people have felt about them. It’s a really clever book, which asks questions such as why we like the wild, why we think we like the wild, would we like it if we weren’t so civilised?

There is a running theme here, connecting solitude with epic and extreme environments.

Epic environments do seem to have something to do with it. I mean we talked about the desert hermits earlier. Later, following that tradition, Irish monks got into tiny boats and travelled everywhere, including North America. The idea was to seek out these really wild places. There is a very strong connection between wilderness and solitude and silence, and you get a sense of that when Macfarlane describes some of his mountaineering experiences.

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You have sung the praises of the quiet life. Do you think that we as a society appreciate silence enough?

I think a great deal of contemporary society has a very unhealthy relationship with silence. The relationship is one of terror. People are terrified of silence, which I expect is because they are terrified of death. We don’t know much about death, but we know absolutely that it ain’t chatty. I think that something which is a simple pleasure and a human necessity becomes, in light of our fear of death, something quite manic. We make increasing amounts of noise as a society. There is music playing everywhere, and even the length of time a radio pause can be has been shortened on the BBC because people don’t like it. We have a high intolerance of silence, but we really can carry on without a mobile phone: I know because I haven’t got one. Personally, and I’m not everybody obviously, I think that not to be able to be silent and alone is quite dangerous and damaging. There is a great loss with children particularly, because of the close relationship between silence and creativity.

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