Skip to Main Content

This is the Voice

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. In describing how we say “Please pass the salt,” 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 musical 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.

More books from this author: John Colapinto