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In Search of Silence

Erling Kagge, a 54-year-old Norwegian explorer, author and publisher, was sitting one morning last month in the private gardens at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, a green oasis of relative quiet in the West Village of Manhattan.

“You never find a place that is total silence,” Mr. Kagge said. “I’ve been looking, and I have not found it.”

The closest he came was trekking to the South Pole, which he reached in early 1993, becoming the first person to ski there unassisted. He was alone in frozen isolation for 50 nights and days. Given a radio to make emergency calls, he’d tossed the batteries on Day 1.

“When you start, you have all the noise in your head,” Mr. Kagge said, adding that by his journey’s end, “You feel your brain is wider than the sky. You’re a guy being part of this bigness, this greatness. To be alone and experience the silence feels very safe, very meaningful.”


Said Mr. Kagge: “Silence is not a trend. Silence is something people have needed for thousands of years.”CreditGeorge Etheredge for The New York Times

Mr. Kagge reflects on the meditative benefits of quiet in his new book, “Silence in the Age of Noise” (out Nov. 21 from Pantheon), a brief but far-roving appreciation of what he calls “the new luxury.” Indeed, from silent meditation retreats to noise-canceling earphones, in recent years silence has been heralded as an increasingly precious commodity, the most sought-after luxury after a good night’s sleep.

Artists, musicians and thrill-seeking journalists are checking into anechoic chambers, or soundproof rooms, where it’s so quiet that you go batty from hearing yourself breathe. The website Daily Stoic recommends following the advice of the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus, who wrote “Be silent for the most part.”

Much of the modern-day “noise” that people wish to escape comes not from loud sounds or grating talk (though there are plenty of both), but from endless distractions. Mr. Kagge was inspired to write the book because, he said, he realized that his three daughters, who range in age from 15 to 21, have grown up with iPhones essentially attached to their bodies.

“My daughters didn’t know what silence was. There’s always something happening, always temptations,” Mr. Kagge said. He frets about the long-term effects of such overstimulation. “Silence is not a trend,” he said. “Silence is something people have needed for thousands of years.”

He had traveled from his home in Oslo to New York to take on a challenge that, in its own way, was no less difficult than walking to the South Pole: finding silence in the city.

He’d gotten off to a noisy start the day before when he’d checked into his hotel and found an air-circulating unit churning outside his window. After waking in another room, he’d walked down Eighth Avenue, only to be assaulted by the “visual noise” of Manhattan in full morning rush. Now, even in an enclosed church garden, he couldn’t escape the incessant grinding sound of workmen stripping paint from a building’s fire escape one block south.


Every tourist in the city seemed to be up on the High Line. “Visual noise,” Mr. Kagge said. CreditGeorge Etheredge for The New York Times
When he got to Central Park, for the first time that day Mr. Kagge could hear the wind. CreditGeorge Etheredge for The New York Times
The Frick Collection provided a different kind of silence: the hushed reverence of museumgoers.CreditGeorge Etheredge for The New York Times

But Mr. Kagge, who has strong features framed by a snowy beard, found the spot tranquil by comparison. “All these variations of green,” he said, looking around.

Mr. Kagge’s own smartphone was tucked into his jeans pocket, where it would remain throughout the day, though he admits to general excessive checking of it, and consultation of Google. In his book, he quotes the 17th-century writer Blaise Pascal, who said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

“I’m not recommending people move into a monastery,” he said. “We’re social beings. But in the silence, you meet yourself.”

An avid art collector, Mr. Kagge next thought to seek contemplative silence inside a museum. He decided against the Museum of Modern Art (“MoMA is too successful”) and instead settled on the less-visited Frick Collection, at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street. Heading uptown, he detoured to walk north along the High Line elevated park, hoping for a quiet aerie.

But every tourist seemed to be up there with him, and down below, on both sides, new office and apartment towers were going up, with machines and construction crews making an awful racket. “That’s a pretty annoying sound,” Mr. Kagge said.

At the High Line’s West 30th Street and 10th Avenue exit, the decibel level reached peak cacophony. It was the heart of the Hudson Yards development project, right near a traffic-clogged entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. Car horns, jackhammers, rivet guns, workmen yelling, New Yorkers speed-walking to get somewhere — maybe the noisiest spot in the Western world.

“This is pretty crazy,” Mr. Kagge yelled.

He quickened his pace, and farther uptown, when he entered Central Park, he stopped, smiled and said, “For the first time today, you can hear the wind.”

UPPER EAST SIDE HUSH

Mr. Kagge has experienced profound moments in nature. He told a story, one he tells in the book, about a sailing trip he took across the south Pacific Ocean, in 1986. He was on watch on deck, alone, after midnight, when he heard “a sound that seemed like a long, deep breath,” to the west of the boat. It was a surfacing whale, unseen but heard and felt in the darkness.


“If you walk 20 or 30 minutes in the city, you’ll find a quiet place,” Mr. Kagge said.CreditGeorge Etheredge for The New York Times

“It made such a deep impression on me,” Mr. Kagge said.

Before going to the Frick, he wanted to stop by the Explorers Club, which is housed in a six-story mansion on East 70th Street. He was invited by its members to join after his headline-grabbing adventures — he has also skied to the North Pole and climbed Mount Everest, the so-called Third Pole — but rarely has a chance to visit.

The club was empty of members at midday, and Mr. Kagge made his way upstairs, to a dark wood-paneled old room. There were no other people inside. There were no sounds of cars whirring by outside. There were no sounds at all.

“But it’s not fair,” Mr. Kagge said, laughing. “It’s inside a private club.”

The Frick, with its paintings by Rembrandt and other old masters, offered Mr. Kagge and the public a different kind of silence: the hushed reverence of museumgoers.

After this there was a break: lunch at a crowded French bistro, and a trip to Dover Street Market, to get his daughters Supreme gear. No expectations there.

When Mr. Kagge resumed the search for silence, he wanted to try a location in the boroughs outside Manhattan. A spot was suggested: Louis Valentino, Jr. Park and Pier, a little green space tucked along the waterfront in the Red Hook section Brooklyn.

By the time Mr. Kagge got there, the news had broke that earlier that afternoon, a man had driven a truck through a crowd of people on a bike path in Lower Manhattan. Helicopters were hovering overhead in the distance. A police boat raced across the choppy water. The world seemed suddenly, scarily, noisy.

And yet, at sunset, in the early evening chill, the park was deeply peaceful.

CreditGeorge Etheredge for The New York Times

Going out to the end of the pier, Mr. Kagge said, “If you walk 20 or 30 minutes in the city, you’ll find a quiet place.”

A young man and woman were also on the pier talking in affectionate whispers. Mr. Kagge was silent for a long time, watching the sun set over the water.

“It’s easy to think silence is about turning your back on the world,” he said. “For me, it’s the opposite. It’s opening up to the world, respecting more and loving life.”



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