Silence speaks to Brunswick scholar, author

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BRUNSWICK — It’s said silence can speak volumes.

In the case of author Jane Brox, it has produced at least one.

The Brunswick author’s book, “Silence: A Social History of one of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives,” was published this month. It’s Brox’s fifth work; her last, “Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light,” was named one of 2010’s top 10 nonfiction books by Time magazine.

Gulf of Maine Books, 134 Maine St., will hold a free reading and publishing party at 5 p.m. Jan. 15 with Brox, who has taught at Harvard University and Bowdoin College and since 2005 been on the faculty of Lesley University’s low-residency Master of Fine Arts Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

In “Silence,” Brox speaks to the elemental and often-overlooked force of perpetual quietude, from the peace and fulfillment felt through the practices of Cistercian monks, to the destructive elements borne out of a 19th-century prison.

The book has “been a long time coming,” inspired by a 2001 visit to a monastery in France, Brox said in an interview Jan. 3. She said she was moved “to write something about the monks and their commitment to silence.”

Brox later read about the 19th-century Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which based punishment on the concept of monastic silence.

“The prisoners would be subject to silence and solitude, and find their way to redemption,” Brox said.

Or, at least that was the intent.

“Of course the experiment went awry, because it was an entirely different atmosphere from the monastery,” leading some prisoners to go insane, Brox said.

“I thought of those two things as a way to discuss the two polarities of silence,” she said, calling them “two concrete worlds in which house the discussion of silence.”

“The thing that distinguished those two worlds was that the monks really live within a community, and they don’t – I think, contrary to popular opinion – live in absolute silence,” Brox explained, noting that their days include saying prayers, singing hymns and sharing meals.

Their silence is a time of searching, inquisition and discovery, she noted.

On the other hand, in the penitentiary each prison lived in his own cell, even exercising alone.

“They had nothing but solitude, and nothing but silence,” she said. “And that overwhelmed them, so it canceled out the positive and magnified the negative.”

A means of redemption soon devolved into a method of control, Brox noted.

Whether you’re in a prison or a monastery, silence can be complex and challenging to maintain.

“Neither silences are very simple,” she added with a laugh, “I guess that’s why you could write a whole book about them.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Jane Brox, a Brunswick author and educator, has released her fifth book, which delves into the social history of silence. 

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.