A Book of Silence, Paperback Book
3.5 out of 5 (1 rating)


After a noisy upbringing as one of six children, and adulthood as a vocal feminist and mother, Sara Maitland began to crave silence.

Over the past five years, she has spent periods of silence in the Sinai desert, the Australian bush, and the Isle of Skye.

She interweaves these experiences with the history of silence through fairy-tale and myth, Western and Eastern religious traditions, the Enlightenment and psychoanalysis, up to the ambivalence towards silence in contemporary society.

Maitland has built a hermitage on an isolated Scottish moor, and the book culminates powerfully with her experiences of silence in this new home.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Memoirs
  • ISBN: 9781847081513

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This is a sort of cross between a memoir and a book of essays, a little bit like Margaret Atwood's Payback: debt and the shadow side of wealth (although Maitland is more intense and less witty). It's about silence, which turns out to be a surprisingly complex subject. Even a definition is trickier than you might think - is it the absence of speech, of human sounds, of any noise at all?Maitland's contention is that silence is not merely an absence, but can be an active and positive experience, a "rich space" of heart and mind. Yet in our modern world we are not only ever further away from silence, but also somehow scared of it, as if afraid of what being in silence would make us think or feel.Maitland examines silence through her own experiences - renting a cottage in Skye where she would be silent for forty days, travelling to iconic silent places like the desert, forest and mountains, meditating in a Zen monastery and engaging in silent prayer (she is Catholic). She also reads about the experiences of people who spent time in silence, willingly or otherwise (for example, lone explorers, kidnap victims, hermits).During her forty days of silence she concludes that there are several things which she experienced and which also feature in the literature of extreme solitude:- an intensification of both emotional and physical sensation, such as taste and even hearing: "One evening I noticed that I was suddenly able to separate the different wind noises and follow their relationship to each other - like an orchestra."- a disinhibition from internalised social rules- auditory hallucinations (which she interprets as the brain trying to interpret the background sounds into spoken language)- moments of intense joy- a sense of oneness with the universe, or losing a clear sense of the boundaries of your self- "an exhilarating sense of peril", which she comes to believe is a sort of "sacred terror"- "ineffability", or the fact that it's hard to recall or explain how it felt when you are no longer experiencing the silence(Interestingly, Maitland also describes the negative sides of these experiences. In Skye, where she had chosen to experience silence, these experiences led her to a sense of bliss. But in a situation where the silence is not chosen voluntarily, such as a prisoner in solitary confinement, the same experiences can be incredibly negative, experienced almost as psychotic episodes. Oneness with the universe might feel like a terrifying slipping away of the self; a sense of peril is experienced as paranoia; oversensitivity to the sort of noises you might hear in prison is very different from suddenly feeling that you heard all the noises of the wind).It's important to note that Maitland enjoys sociability, and enjoys talking. She does not see her seeking of silence as, in any way, running away from anything; and is critical of the sense that in the modern world, only our interactions with other people are valued. However, as well as enjoying silence for itself, Maitland started exploring silence in the hope that she would be able to both pray and write better as a result. She concludes, though, that silence to create and silence to pray are very different. You seek silence for prayer as a way of losing your self and being conscious of what is greater than you. You seek silence to create as a way of finding your self, separating it out from the worldly noise that would otherwise distract you from your artistic vision.I found much of this book fascinating, and am strongly tempted by the idea of a lengthy period of strict silence (although I too like talk and sociability). Being entirely unspiritual myself, my attention did drift during the long discussions of the desert hermits or the impact of silence on prayer. But I do feel richer for having read this.<i>The more and the longer you are silent the more you hear the tiny noises within the silence, so that silence itself is always slipping away like a timid wild animal. You have to be very still and lure it. This is hard; one has only to try to quieten one's mind or body to discover just how turbulent they are.</i>

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