Chuck Klosterman is a writer whose books I’ve been seeing on display shelves at bookstores for over a decade now, but who I’ve never had even the slightest interest in reading. I remember hearing some buzz about his first collection of essays, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto (2003), which was his second book, but the buzz wasn’t buzzy enough for me to read it. He’s written a handful of nonfiction books, a few of them essay collections, and two novels. But last week, as I perused the new nonfiction display at Walden Pond Books in Oakland, he finally caught my eye, and my interest, enough that I threw down the twenty-four dollars and took home his latest.
The central premise of But What If We’re Wrong?, and the reason I read it, is a quite fascinating thought experiment of sorts: Klosterman seeks to imagine what societies in the distant future, and the historians in those societies, will think of us, right here in the present. He begins by expounding upon our current situation. Specifically, he argues that we live in a society where just about all information is captured and shared and widely available, and consequently “we’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge.” He points out that, “while this notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing,” and reminds us that “the practical reality is that any present-tense version of the world is unstable” (10).
So that’s the premise. We think we know everything, and we think that what we know is right. But it’s not; it simply can’t be. And Klosterman explains this frustrating notion within two specific theaters of human culture: literature and rock and roll music. For my money, incidentally, this is the part of the book that I felt shined most brightly. He opens with a discussion about Moby Dick, which he argues is “not merely an epic novel, but a transformative literary innovation that helps define how novels are supposed to be viewed.” He starts from this point: “Any discussion about the clichéd concept of ‘the Great American Novel’ begins with this book” (8). But then he tells the story of how Melville wrote the book, and how it miserably failed commercially and was roundly panned by critics, and how Melville died a pauper, with no idea that many decades later, this book that was widely unappreciated during his lifetime would come to be known as one of the greatest novels ever written.
This leads into a discussion, obviously, around what it is that we could be wrong about right now. If we conducted a survey and asked folks what writers and books will come to be known hundreds of years from now as the greats from our current era, there are some common answers that we would expect (DeLillo, Franzen, and Pynchon are some names he mentions), but Klosterman spends some time discussing the fact that we could very well be wrong about this. He posits that it’s fairly likely that the most famous writer from our time may be someone who is at present relatively (or even entirely) unknown. Who knows?
Then he moves on to do the same kind of thought experiment within the framework of rock and roll music. He speculates that, in the distant future, what we think of as rock and roll will be collapsed down to a single artist, or even a single song. This notion may seem crazy on its face, for there is an almost incomprehensibly large volume of rock and roll music, and it’s all at our fingertips, and rock and roll music occupies such a central role in our society that almost anyone can speak semi-intelligently about its history and its eras and name dozens if not hundreds of its key players. But it seems much less crazy when one considers what we think of as classical music from the 1700s or 1800s in Europe: though there were certainly hundreds of composers and musicians working at the time, most folks today can name probably only a handful. Perhaps more important, though, is the point he makes about who this artist will be who gets remembered through the ages. Most folks probably think the Beatles, maybe Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, or maybe it’ll be Pearl Jam or Radiohead or some other such prolific and influential artist or group. But in reality it has nothing to do with merit or influence or talent. “History is defined by those who don’t really understand what they’re defining,” Klosterman argues.
He uses architecture to illustrate the point:
If we walked down the street of any American city and asked people to name the greatest architect of the twentieth century, most would say Frank Lloyd Wright…In order for someone to argue in favor of any architect except Wright (or even to be in a position to name three other plausible candidates), that person would almost need to be an expert in architecture. Normal humans don’t possess enough information to nominate alternative possibilities. And what emerges from that social condition is an insane kind of logic: Frank Lloyd Wright is indisputably the greatest architect of the twentieth century, and the only people who’d potentially disagree with that assertion are those who legitimately understand the question (90-91).
That’s why it doesn’t matter that the Beatles were the most prolific or Dylan the most lyrically inventive or Jimi Hendrix the most talented; all that matters is who will weather the storm of time and be understood as important by people who have no concept of what the world was like when any of these people were making music. This point can also be made about Shakespeare. We all in some sense unconsciously believe that Shakespeare was the best playwright of his time, but very few of us have even read anything by any other playwright of his time, nor do we care to. As Klosterman puts it: “To matter forever, you need to matter to those who don’t care.”
Now, that’s my summary of what constitutes merely the first half of the book, and I realize now that I’m beginning to ramble here, so I’ll stop myself before I dive into explaining his subsequent enthralling discussion about how future historians will judge our society by a particular type of TV show. The point is this: But What If We’re Wrong? utterly fascinated me, and I was quite caught up in its interesting riddles. And all of this is made even better by the fact that Klosterman writes with an irresistible comedic, snappy wit. I found myself laughing aloud many times throughout the book.
Kudos to Klosterman for granting us this delightful book full of brilliant, funny insights. The joke of it, though, is that this book is itself perhaps a perfect example of its thesis. Future historians probably won’t revere or even remember it, but we can certainly enjoy it now. This, perhaps, may be the most important point Klosterman makes in this book. But What If We’re Wrong? reminds us of the transience of our lives and our world. All these books we read, all of this music we listen to, all of this “news” we consume, all of this culture of ours, it’s all going to be gone, and fairly quickly, and only the tiniest of nuggets will remain and be remembered. And who knows which nuggets?