Jane Brox: The Social History of Silence

If silence could tell us a story about itself, what would it say?

This could be the question that Jane Brox answers in her most recent book, Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements in Our Lives (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). Brox is the award-winning author of several acclaimed works of literary nonfiction, including Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light and Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm.

In her fascinating study, Brox explores how silence impacts people both as individuals and as communities, by considering how silence has shaped two of the most archetypal institutions in western society: the monastery and the penitentiary. But she also considers the ways in which silence has particularly impacted the lives of women — both inside and outside such institutions.

Silence has always been important to my life, partly because I’m a writer and to me, there’s never enough silence when I’m working. Not only when I’m working at the page, but before and afterwards — that’s the place in which the work grows. — Jane Brox

Brox offers us tremendous insight into how silence is critical to her process as a creative writer. Having first encountered silence in her childhood on a farm, she grew up to embrace the writer’s life, and discovering how essential silence has been to her ability to think — and create — in a comprehensive way.

She talks about having a long-standing appreciation for Thomas Merton, which led to her organizing her book around his story — and the story of an obscure nineteenth-century convict from America’s first penitentiary. But she also looks at how women have experienced silence in some very different ways from men’s experience of silence.

What emerged for Brox was a deepened appreciation for just how complex the human relationship to silence really is — that a simplistic distinction between “imposed silence” (in the penitentiary) and “chosen silence” (in the monastery) simply does not adequately reveal just how nuanced the social history of silence truly is.

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Silence is an extreme place; and it’s total exposure. Even the most balanced person is tested there. That’s in part why people seek it, to see where they will go; that’s in party why people flee it, because it’s so terrifying. There’s no protection in the silence… There’s no place to  hide in silence. — Jane Brox

Episode 54: The Social History of Silence: A Conversation with Jane Brox
Hosted by: Kevin Johnson
With: Cassidy Hall, Carl McColman
Guest: Jane Brox
Date Recorded: February 4, 2019

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Carl McColman
Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

1 Comment

  1. Very interested to see this. I remember Jane from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, she graduated a year ahead of me. Had no idea she became such an esteemed author. Thanks for posting!

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