Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives

Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives

by Jane Brox


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From the author of the “dazzling epic”* Brilliant, a compelling history of silence as a powerful shaper of the human mind—in prisons, in places of contemplation, and in our own lives

Through her evocative intertwined histories of the penitentiary and the monastery, Jane Brox illuminates the many ways silence is far more complex than any absolute; how it has influenced ideas of the self, soul, and society. Brox traces its place as a transformative power in the monastic world from Medieval Europe to the very public life of twentieth century monk Thomas Merton, whose love for silence deepened even as he faced his obligation to speak out against war. This fascinating history of ideas also explores the influence the monastic cell had on one of society’s darkest experiments in silence: Eastern State Penitentiary. Conceived of by one of the Founding Fathers and built on the outskirts of Philadelphia, the penitentiary’s early promulgators imagined redemption in imposed isolation, but they badly misapprehended silence’s dangers.

Finally, Brox’s rich exploration of silence’s complex and competing meanings leads us to imagine how we might navigate our own relationship with silence today, for the transformation it has always promised, in our own lives. 


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544702486
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 01/15/2019
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,209,881
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

JANE BROX’s most recent book, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, was named one of the top ten nonfiction books of 2010 by Time.

Table of Contents

Part I Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, 1829: Experiment in Silence

1 Man of Sorrows 3

2 Benjamin Rush's Vision 12

3 "Good by Discipline" 28

4 John Haviland's Star of Solitudes 39

Part II The Monastic World: A History of Silence

5 In Proportion 53

6 Speech and Silence 69

7 Thomas Merton: Silence and the World 79

8 Measures of Time 89

9 The Voices of the Pages 99

10 The Great Silence 105

Part III Philadelphia: Darkening the Dark

11 Night in Stone 115

12 "I Get Up and Hammer My Leather" 122

13 Punishment Within Punishment 134

14 So Thai It "May Uplift" 150

15 Time Again 159

Part IV The Silence of Women

16 Silencing Silence 173

17 "Or Perhaps the Women …" 187

18 Monastic Women: More Shadow Than Light 196

Part V The Ends of Silence

19 Thomas Merton: Questioning Silence 211

20 The Monastic World: What Remains 228

21 The Prison Cell in Our Time 235

22 Intervals of Silence 245


In Ruins 257

Acknowledgments 265

Bibliographic Note 267

Notes 271

Permissions 300

Index 301

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