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Reviewed by:
  • Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond by Hillel Schwartz
  • David Morton (bio)
Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond. By Hillel Schwartz. New York: Zone Books, 2011. Pp. 912. $38.95.

With 859 pages of text, Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise is one of those big, thick books that publishers rarely permit these days. Its heft is not its only anachronism. The reader will find this work a real throwback to the nineteenth century, one that apes that era’s flowery style of writing, way of decorating the page with words, annotated table of contents, and mysteriously and uninformatively titled chapters. Its most appealing intellectual feature is also something that today’s historians rarely encounter: an effort to cover a sweeping timescale, take on a global scope, and create something of a “big picture.” The author does so through an impressive combination of synthesis and the employment of diverse artifacts, documents, musical scores, and other sources. The sources reflect Schwartz’s ability to seek out and utilize all sorts of evidence. The essence of his argument is that sound should be understood as a physical phenomenon, while noise is something defined by culture. Perceptions of sound and definitions of noise change over time, and new variations are continually emerging, disappearing, or being reinterpreted, often along the lines of race, class, ethnicity, and gender.

Between the revelation of his main argument early on and page 859 lies a great deal of difficult reading. The frontispiece tells us that the book is meant to be read aloud, and that impractical instruction perfectly captures the author’s attitude toward his audience. The entire work is intentionally difficult and self-indulgent, unnecessarily transforming an interesting and important topic in history into a tangled mess of strained cleverness and unsupported assertions countered by valid insights too often obscured by the author’s choice of language and style.

Throughout, Schwartz piles on cringe-worthy puns, quaint turns of phrase, and double entendres that have the unfortunate effect of diminishing the book’s usability as a work of history. In some cases evidence is presented without any context or sequence, rendering it useless. Images, for [End Page 486] example, are referred to as “soundplates” for no good reason and are captioned in a special section at the end of the book because the author wants the reader to pause and wonder. Why would a historian want to make a subject more difficult? As the story jumps from era to era and place to place, it rapidly becomes clear to the reader that this will not be a helpful history but rather an unfortunate experiment in style.

Concerning the academic features of the book, there are reference numbers but no endnotes in the volume itself, the notes being relegated to a spot on the website of the publisher. While this is now a trend in publishing, here it is wholly the author’s own fault, because the publisher deemed the manuscript too long to print the notes. Chapter and section titles are ambiguous and unhelpful, although the index is excellent.

Despite the promise of its subject and the massive amount of source material, its methodological flaws and abuse of the reader place Schwartz’s writing outside the realm of historical scholarship. The author is a self-described “historian of technology, a poet, and a teacher of improvisational dance” (p. 24) who clearly set out to make a contribution to the scholarly history of sound. This book will not be that.

David Morton

David Morton is author of Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America (2000). He is a research scientist with the College of Architecture, Georgia Institute of Technology.

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