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This Is the Voice

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A New York Times bestselling writer explores what our unique sonic signature reveals about our species, our culture, and each one of us. Finally, a vital topic that has never had its own book gets its due.

There’s no shortage of books about public speaking or language or song. But until now, there has been no book about the miracle that underlies them all—the human voice itself. And there are few writers who could take on this surprisingly vast topic with more artistry and expertise than John Colapinto. Beginning with the novel—and compelling—argument that our ability to speak is what made us the planet’s dominant species, he guides us from the voice’s beginnings in lungfish millions of years ago to its culmination in the talent of Pavoratti, Martin Luther King Jr., and Beyoncé—and each of us, every day.

Along the way, he shows us why the voice is the most efficient, effective means of communication ever devised: it works in all directions, in all weathers, even in the dark, and it can be calibrated to reach one other person or thousands. He reveals why speech is the single most complex and intricate activity humans can perform. He travels up the Amazon to meet the Piraha, a reclusive tribe whose singular language, more musical than any other, can help us hear how melodic principles underpin every word we utter. He heads up to Harvard to see how professional voices are helped and healed, and he ventures out on the campaign trail to see how demagogues wield their voices as weapons.

As far-reaching as this book is, much of the delight of reading it lies in how intimate it feels. Everything Colapinto tells us can be tested by our own lungs and mouths and ears and brains. He shows us that, for those who pay attention, the voice is an eloquent means of communicating not only what the speaker means, but also their mood, sexual preference, age, income, even psychological and physical illness.

It overstates the case only slightly to say that anyone who talks, or sings, or listens will find a rich trove of thrills in This Is the Voice.

Photograph by John Vincent

John Colapinto is an award-winning staff writer at The New Yorker. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller As Nature Made Him. He lives in New York City.

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 26, 2021)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982128760

“This is an amazing work. I didn’t realize until I read it that it’s the book I’ve been wanting to read for thirty years. Everything you might want to know, or have wondered about, or didn’t even consider about how we speak and listen, exchange information, and the musicality behind all of it is here . . . and then some. I couldn’t put it down.” —DANIEL LEVITIN, author of This Is Your Brain on Music

“This astonishing and resonant tour of the vocal cords ends up transporting the reader all over the human body, the brain, and the world beyond. John Colapinto seems to be murmuring in your ear the whole way, cracking jokes, telling stories, sharing fabulous secrets—and singing, too.” —ABIGAIL TUCKER, New York Times bestselling author of Lion in the Living Room

"Fascinating...Colapinto’s narrative is chock full of information, and is something any curious-minded reader will be glad to have spent time with." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“With prose as clear as a bell, Colapinto takes you into the complexities by which sound becomes voice and voice becomes a central feature of human culture—and a way to discover who you are. Reading it was a real pleasure.” —RON ROSENBAUM, author of The Shakespeare Wars

“As Colapinto proves, no human attribute has been more crucial to the evolution of our species than our ability to convey meaning through sound. Colapinto’s written voice is resonant with humor, insight, intelligence, and sincerity. Highly recommended.” —CHRISTOPHER RYAN, coauthor of Sex at Dawn

“This book has the mark of an enduring success, a work that readers will be turning to for decades, not years. In this fascinating exploration of the new science of speech, John Colapinto teaches us not only about the sounds we make, but the people we are.” —DAVID FRUM, The Atlantic

“The story of human speech is as compelling as any mystery narrative. Ancient history, evolution, social development, gender, culture, and Neanderthals all play a part in the fascinating story that charts our journey from grunts to eloquent speech.” —PETER JACKSON, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy

“Focused, lucidly written… A rich trove of science and contemporary culture.”—Kirkus Reviews

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