American journalist Stephen Kurczy supplies touching accounts of how a close-knit community can function offline in The Quiet Zone
The Quiet Zone
Stephen Kurczy Dey Street Books £20
Imagine a world where your life wasn’t disrupted by a constant ping of emails, you spoke to your partner rather than WhatsApping them, and your kids weren’t glued to Tic toc.
That’s the promise of the town of Green Bank, deep in the Appalachian Mountains of the United States. It’s a place where Wi-Fi and mobile phones are banned, and even microwaves and automatic flushing toilets are confined to restricted areas.
Green Bank, in West Virginia, is home to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, where scientists search for the secrets of the universe. For a tenmile radius, all devices that emanate radio frequencies are banned in order not to disrupt the observatory’s telescopes.
Green Bank, in West Virginia, is home to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (sopra), where scientists search for the secrets of the universe
This means that many who are sick of digital connectivity – or believe they are sick because of digital connectivity – flock there.
The American journalist Stephen Kurczy, who had resisted having a mobile phone for ten years, was drawn to a place that seemed to offer freedom from our hyper-connected lives.
‘It did not occur to me,' scrisse, ‘that a community bathed in quiet could be anything but idyllic.’
But in the four years that he spent visiting there, he discovered that the Quiet Zone was far from quiet. Infatti, nearly everyone in the town has Wi-Fi – even the man whose job it is to roam around town searching for infractions of the ban – and Green Bankers thought he was the odd one out not having a mobile.
What Kurczy stumbled on instead was a place where people have things they want to keep quiet: international eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, a neo-Nazi headquarters, sex cults and unsolved murders, as well as Hunter ‘Patch’ Adams – the clown doctor made famous by the Robin Williams film.
As one resident put it succinctly, the place is ‘a magnet for weirdos’.
The book unfolds gradually and at times can feel slow-moving and overresearched – rather like the town itself which is frequently deluged with journalists. The most gripping parts are the vivid descriptions of the ‘electrosensitives’ who are convinced they feel ill when exposed to iPhones or smart meters – and Kurczy’s dogged pursuit of those involved in the National Alliance, a crumbling white supremacist organisation which made its headquarters there.
But Kurczy did not want his book to be a gawp at moonshiners and hillbillies: his aim was to see whether it’s possible for us to have a healthier relationship with technology if you restrict access to it.
There are no easy answers. If you want evidence that switching off completely from technology is desirable or even possible, you won’t find it in this book – although Kurczy supplies touching accounts of how a close-knit community can function offline.
He concludes that what we should find most worrying is not whether radio waves can damage our health, but the fact that extremists like the white supremacists he met no longer need a physical place like Green Bank to spread their messages of hate, now they have the internet.
Quello, lui conclude, is the real invisible pollution we should fear.
Index, A History Of The
Dennis Duncan Allen Lane £20
Few readers of books ever give much thought to the index and who might have compiled it. It’s a place to dip into, to get your bearings and to remind yourself where you’re going and where you’ve been.
Yet the index has its own fascinating history. And Dennis Duncan is just the man to write it. Duncan likes indexes so much he admits to being brought close to tears of rapture upon examining for himself a priceless early example (‘the most intense experience that I have had of the archival sublime’ he waxes).
In Roman times, the word index referred merely to a label displaying author and title affixed to the edge of a scroll so that someone could tell what it was without having to unroll the blessed thing (the same sort of label was known to the ancient Greeks as a ‘sillybos’ – giving us the word ‘syllabus’).
Yet by the 19th Century the index had not only become an essential component of books and periodicals, but had also acquired its own potency (a mock index written in a satirical work about Richard Bentley, the King’s librarian, by a hated rival itemises thus; ‘Bentley; His egregious dulness p.74, His Pedantry from p. 93 per 99, and His familiar acquaintance with Books that he never saw, p 76.’)
Di 1877 such was the craze for the humble index that a society was formed to promulgate its objectives (though ironically the society’s first publication lacked an index).
From the Roman Empire to the age of the search engine and hashtag, Duncan’s enthusiasm for his subject leavens what could be a subject as dusty as the shelves of any reference library; yet this remains a serious book for serious bibliophiles.
As for the multitude of anonymous compilers who toil away at this neglected literary form, Duncan hopes his own work may serve ‘as a wreath laid at the tomb of these unknown readers’.