(Review) Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives by Jane Brox


Publisher and Publication Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. January 15, 2019.
Genre: Nonfiction. Silence and solitude-understanding them.
Pages: 320.
Source: Library.
Audience: Readers who want to understand how silence has been used in society. For example, punishment through the prison system.
Rating: Good.


is a library book. While in the library I read the synopsis from the inside cover and was intrigued.
When I think about silence it reminds me of a state of solitude and stillness. This book is about a solitary form of silence or a disciplined silence like in a prison cell or monastery. Both places require silence, but are for different reasons. Both places of silence are doing so as a form of discipline. One form of discipline because the person has been punished. The other form of discipline as a way of spiritual discipline and practice.
In Silence, the first part of the book is a history of prisons in the western world. The history of Newgate (England), Eastern State Penitentiary, and Western State Penitentiary. The last two listed are located in Pennsylvania.
The later half of the book is silence as contemplative in a religious setting.

My Thoughts:
I’m an introvert and love quiet days at home. I love going the whole day without turning on the television or talking to anyone. I don’t want to do this everyday, but I enjoy those days when I can remain silent. I have friends and family who are uncomfortable and down right fearful of being in a quiet place. But what if I had to spend days, months, and years in this state?
When the book begins the life of Charles Williams is given. He was the first inmate at the Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829. He was an experiment in “silence” and solitary confinement for the penal system in America. Nothing is known about Williams after his release from prison. His two years of solitary confinement is used in the book as a strong illustration of what silence does for a prisoner.
Later in the book, women who were inmates in the Eastern State Penitentiary, punishment to women in the Colonial Era, and monastic women are examined.
Silence as contemplative is shown through the life of Thomas Merton. He was curious about the discipline of silence and drawn to becoming a Trappist monk at Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky.
What I did not like about this book is how it is organized. Part one is the history of the prison system as it pertains to forms of discipline and punishment, principally “silence” or solitary confinement. However, in the second half of the book it goes back to the prison system, even though I’d thought it was going to only be about contemplative orders of solitariness.
And a secondary reason is I feel there is confusion about the words silence and solitary. I looked them up in the dictionary and there is a difference.
From Webster’s New World College Dictionary:
“Silence- The state or fact of keeping silent; a refraining from speech or from making noise.”
“Solitary-Living or being alone, without others; single; characterized by loneliness or lack of companions.”
A prisoner is silent in solitary confinement and disciplined by being set apart for a lone existence. Not his or her choice, but as a form of discipline and punishment.
A person in a monastic life is silent because they choose to be silent. They live and move among other people but remain silent. It is a form of discipline and teaching on their life.
What I like about the book is reading about a subject not talked about much. The world is noisy. It is even noisy in preoccupation with techie gadgets. To be still and silent is eerily different. But I like it!
A second reason I like the book is it causes me to think about my speech, how I am silent and why, and the importance and timing of words.


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