“It is quite hard to remember which came first—the freedom of solitude or the energy of silence. … I became less driven, more reflective and great deal less frenetic. And into that space flowed silence: I would go out into the garden at night or in the early morning and just look and listen… . For the first time in my life I noticed the gradation of colours before sunrise—from indigo through apricot to a lapidary blueness.”

Our society seems to be getting noisier. Noise follows us everywhere—in the busyness of cities, the music in shops and 24-hour television. And even when there is no sound, there is noise of another kind—the distraction of social media and smartphones. It feels like people are afraid of being quiet. And paradoxically, quiet is also what many people yearn for: a slowing down, the time to stop and notice, and to reflect.

Sara Maitland grew up in a noisy household, where the children were encouraged to voice their opinions. She loved talking, so much so that she says her hobby was depnisophy (skill at dinner party talk). But after her divorce, when she starts to live alone, she finds what she really needs is silence and moves to an isolated house on the moor in Weardale, near the Penines.

Maitland is curious about silence: what it means, how it affects people differently and what drives those who go in search of it. She sets out to answer these questions both by going to remote places and by reading the accounts of others who have, voluntarily or involuntarily, spent long periods by themselves.

But how do you define silence? Is it just an absence of noise, of conversation, or a complete emptying of the mind? Does reading, or listening to classical music (without vocals) or loud bird calls count as being silent?

Before I read this, I hadn’t realized how many kinds of silence there were. There is the silence of hermits, and the one experienced by people alone on boats in the middle of the seas or hiking in the wilderness; the kind that focuses inward and the kind where the boundaries between the self and the universe fade. And there is the dark side, the path to madness.

People often fear the absence of sound, of communication. A retreat from the world and into utter silence is often seen as an indication of something not quite right, and a risk that isolation can lead to insanity. Rather than something that enriches, it is seen as an absence, a lack. Maitland disagrees. As a practising Christian and a writer, she values silence and the way it opens up a space within.

She writes about how the quality of silence changes with the landscape. The silence of the desert is very different from that of a forest. She goes to the Sinai desert and for the first time, hears “the sound of silence…the absence of anything to hear”. In a forest, there is always some sound—water, creatures or the wind through the trees. Also, in a desert or on a moor, everything is visible for miles. The forest, on the other hand, holds secrets, which is why fairy tales are so often set there. 

Silence can affect the mind, playing tricks on it. One winter when she was snowed in, she ventures out for a walk. About half a mile from her house, she hears a terrifying sound, like the wailing of the damned. She is convinced that it will drive her insane, but eventually realizes that it was the wind.

But on the whole, there is more to gain than lose from silence. Being alone with your thoughts makes you more reflective, more self-aware and more still within. As the quote at the beginning of this piece shows, you become more aware of nature, of tiny changes and their meanings. 

This is a rich book with interesting ideas, and a lot of research—it is full of quotes from other writers, which is sometimes interesting but at other times, a little too much. I learned a lot from this—and not just about silence.