But What If We’re Wrong?

Author: Chuck Klosterman

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past

Published: 2016

I read it: January 2017


Chuck’s gone and done it again. A layman’s idea man, he’s went deep this time and the twisty pathways are a treat as usual.

The basic premise rests on the fact that we always look back at previous eras and can instantly spot something that a particular chunk of humanity got wrong on any given subject. So what will our future selves think we are currently getting wrong? And not just the small stuff—what are the big accepted truths that we rarely question because they seem so obvious?

Example: gravity. Klosterman spends time in the strange realms of theoretical physics and asks whether or not we can be confident about today’s science as compared to yesteryear’s science. He interviews Neil Degrasse Tyson and Brian Greene on the subject, which alone makes the book worth the read. There’s plenty to chew on about what we do and don’t know about the universe.

But of course what the author does best is pop culture, and those are some of the most memorable pages. Early in the book he tackles literature, using Moby-Dick as the key example of something that wasn’t taken seriously during its time. He draws opinions from George Saunders and Junot Díaz about which type of author from our era will go down in the archives. (He thinks there’s a good chance it will be someone completely unknown currently—I don’t entirely buy the line of reasoning but it’s fascinating nevertheless.)

In parallel to the big premise (what we may be wrong about today) he outlines the other uncomfortable notion: that after enough time passes, an entire art form or medium will get compressed into and represented by only one artist. So for rock music, who will it be? Klosterman confronts the obvious answer of The Beatles, and then describes why this might not be the case. He does a similar analysis for television, and his idea about which show gets remembered and studied is surprising but also convincing. It’s fun to get led along by the argument, so I won’t spoil with the specifics.

Klosterman claims time and again that the book is not about making predictions, and it’s really not. But still, the reader wants to know his opinions, and the closest he comes to outlining an actual possibility is what might happen to professional football. Again, a summary won’t do it justice and would just spoil the fun. But this is a really good slice to read for both sports fans and non-sports fans alike.

Finally, he pans out to grapple with the concepts of history and humanity and the limitations not of facts themselves, but of being able to wrap our minds around reality. Had this work been written a year later than it was, the entire thing may have needed one of his signature footnotes to explain how he in no way would want his thought experiments to support the legitimacy of fake news. But he does make some good points about storytelling and how we are doomed to remember only slivers and slices, and repeat our historical mantras indefinitely:

Storytelling’s relationship to history is a little like interviewing’s relationship to journalism: a flawed process without a better alternative. We are socially conditioned to understand the universe through storytelling, and—even if we weren’t—there’s neurological evidence that the left hemisphere of our brain automatically organizes information in an explainable, reassuring narrative. This is how the world will be understood, even if we desire otherwise.

The questions in the book are huge, and the text boasts a high number of uses of the words “insane” and “impossible.” It’s perfectly suited for the casual intellectual, and the only risk is that you might blast through it too quickly. I sure did. Keep thinking those crazy thoughts, Chuck.

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