Monday, 2 January 2017

But What If We're Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman Review

In his latest book, Chuck Klosterman takes a look at the present as if it were the distant past, posing some interesting thought experiments: what will people think of the early 21st century in 500 years’ time? Will rock music still be popular and who will be remembered as the epitome of the genre? Will team sports like football still be popular? Who will be remembered as the most significant writer of this time? Has science reached an impasse or are we about to discover a major new bountiful field of research? Will democracy become a distant memory as humanity discovers a better political system? 

But What If We’re Wrong? isn’t a bad book but I didn’t love it either, mostly for the style it was written in rather than the content. 

Klosterman was a Rolling Stone writer for many years so it’s no surprise the sections on pop culture are the best in the book. Coming to the conclusion that Chuck Berry will be the defining figure of rock’n’roll for future people was an amusing journey though his answer as to who will be the defining writer of this age - unknown - was a cop-out. 

In his chapter on how colours are viewed through the years, I learned about a 2015 meme called The Dress which was fascinating. It’s a photo of a white and gold dress that’s actually black and blue - google it and make up your own mind! Also a number of the interviewees like filmmaker Richard Linklater, scientist Neil deGrasse-Tyson and writer George Saunders have some fascinating ideas on their subjects - Linklater’s views on dreams and how we should view them as far more important than we currently do was very thoughtful and convincing. 

Some of Klosterman’s theses though are a bit outrageous. Team sports like American football will be completely unpopular in just a few decades? Come on. And while Klosterman is strong on pop culture, he’s weak on science, history and philosophy. He claims that democracy didn’t work for people in the Ancient World which is why they turned to tyrants to rule over them. 

What?! No examples, just a sweeping, stupid statement that fails to take into account how different their concept of democracy was to ours today and the lack of choice in that sort of switch - people don’t select tyrants (that would be democratic), they seize power themselves! And contemporary people are turned off of the idea of tyrants because of bad recent examples like Hitler and Stalin? What a doofus. There have never been benevolent tyrants ever. The same goes for the sections on science and philosophy which are similarly shakily constructed and questionable. He really should’ve just stuck with pop culture in this book. 

The premise seems obvious and can’t be argued with; after all the present is always changing and what we believe in a hundred years will of course be vastly different from what we believe today. It’s still amazing though to contemplate the sheer amount of information each of us has about whatever we’re interested in will become largely forgotten to all but future scholars of this time. 

What do most of us know about 19th century France off the top of our heads? Napoleon I to III, some French writers like Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, the Eiffel Tower - surface level stuff! Take that back even further to 500 years ago and what do we know about the 16th century world? Everything now will be recorded but most people 500 years from now won’t care to look it up - it’ll all largely be forgotten. 

Maybe the only significant factoid future people will remember about the early 21st century will be that America elected its first black president (shortly before electing its second, Kanye West)! Puts it all in perspective doesn’t it? All the bullshit we yammer on about, gone, replaced with the bullshit future generations will be yammering on about, and so on.

It’s not the content that lets the book down, it’s Klosterman’s writing style. He has this rambling, circular, extremely pedantic way of writing that becomes tiresome after getting through, say, 10 pages - that’s why it took me nearly two months to make my way through a relatively short 262 page book! The TV chapter felt especially overlong. Klosterman makes the case that prestige TV - The Wire, Breaking Bad, etc. - will be far less valuable to cultural historians in the future than the news and footage ordinary people shot and uploaded to YouTube. Fair enough - but an entire chapter to make that point?? 

Actually you could make the case for the entire book - the thesis is fairly succinct and self-explanatory from the start! It more or less reads like a great magazine article pitch that got out of hand, especially as its length doesn’t really improve on its central thesis, it just shows you that Klosterman can witter on at length when he needs to! 

But of course that’s not really the point. Even though wondering about how people 500 years from now will view our time makes no difference to anyone currently alive and the whole exercise is based on Klosterman’s thoughts and is admittedly pointless, parts of it are entertaining to read about, even if his plodding, must-include-every-possible-angle style of writing makes you want to brain him! Really patient readers will get the most out of this one but I’d say for more general readers, But What If We’re Wrong? is an easy one to skip even if you’re a Chuck Klosterman fan.

1 comment:

  1. His writing style in this book is Socratic method. Try reading Plato's The Republic and it will make more sense what Klosterman is doing here. I think you might also be misunderstanding how Klosterman is playing with possibility and not so much making definitive conclusions.