Friday, June 10, 2016

But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman (Book Review)

We constantly pretend our perception of the present day will not seem ludicrous in retrospect, simply because there doesn’t appear to be any other option. Yet there is another option, and the options is this: We must start from the premise that – in all likelihood – we are already wrong.

This thesis statement perfectly lays out Chuck Klosterman’s engaging and inquisitive challenge threaded throughout the entirety of his new book But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past. In his distinctive critique-plus-curiosity style, Klosterman takes a variety of subjects – science, history, music, sports, dreams, literature, the Constitution, and the technological simulation of the human experience – and tries to dismantle and reassemble them within the context of future hindsight. That is, trying to deduce what present-day accepted truths will turn out to be false by speculating how future generations might look back on them. I use the word “speculating” instead of “prophesying” because Klosterman does an incredible job of exploring all aspects of the “yes, no, maybe” possibilities instead of leaning too hard on any one of them and painting himself into too many corners. 

In fact, Klosterman speaks specifically against the certitude-in-perpetuity of the collective cultural consciousness and argues, not just that we’re wrong about some things (a less-specific thought most any intelligent person would agree with), but that we’re probably wrong about some very big, very foundational, very specific things (an experience most intelligent people don’t want to get too concrete about). Early in the book, Klosterman asserts, “there’s certainly a difference between collective, objective wrongness (e.g., misunderstanding gravity for twenty centuries) and collective, subjective wrongness (e.g., not caring about Moby-Dick for seventy-five years).” By continually slicing and dicing the nuances between those two ideas, Klosterman attempts to answer some “profound in their simplicity” questions about contemporary society. In doing so, his point is not to compile an arbitrary list of predictions, but rather to highlight the importance of “humility and wonder” - the beneficial by-products of “constantly probing the possibility that our assumptions about the future might be wrong.” 

As an author, Klosterman has made a name for himself through an impressive and enjoyable catalog of pop cultural criticism, entertainment analysis, and even some enthralling fiction narratives, and But What if We’re Wrong? marks both a continuation in this work and also an incredibly insightful foray into new ground as well. Klosterman writes in a way that shows a willingness to wrestle with some heady topics – How will our understanding of gravity continue to evolve? How is history constructed? Given enough time, will our feverish adherence to the Constitution become our greatness weakness? Why do we take the act of dreaming (and the content of our dreams) less seriously than previous civilizations? Is it possible that our reality is a construct of a computer simulation? – as well as tread familiar ground in his application of these bigger questions to music, literature, entertainment, and sports – Which artist/band will be the singular definitive representation of rock music in 500 years? For future generations, will football be the only surviving team sport because of its inherent violence or will it disappear along with every other team sports. Which of our current writers will be most remembered by future readers, and are they completely unknown to us now or are they known and widely disrespected? 

After reading through (and immensely enjoying the filter shift of) But What if We’re Wrong?, one thing about future hindsight is clear. While Klosterman’s literary catalog has always shown an upward trajectory of ever-increasing quality and merit, he will most likely not be able to see another leap of this magnitude in regards to the gravitas of this book. Meaning, he will most likely continue to keep becoming a better writer with each book, but the gap of forward momentum covered between books may never be as big as it currently is. I can’t recommend But What if We’re Wrong? enough and if your experience is anything like mine, you wont be able to put this book down and we will all be returning to it every 5-10 years to reset our current perspective on the future’s past.

As a bonus, here's a quick interview with Klosterman about his new book (courtesy of NPR):

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