I’m thirty-four years old and have only just now read a Chuck Klosterman book—or a Chuck Klosterman anything to be more precise. He’s been on my radar for about a decade, and I’ve had a copy of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs on my shelf for almost as many years, but I’ve never even cracked the spine. I never felt traditionally cool enough to read Klosterman. I’ll be the first to admit that none of this was based on anything remotely resembling an informed decision. Looking back at my motivations for never reading him, now with a little bit of hindsight, I think it was an entirely prejudiced, subconscious decision based mostly on myself not identifying with the group of people I had imagined to be fans of Klosterman’s work. I was trapped by my perception of his audience. It sounds completely ridiculous writing those words, but there they are. That isn’t who I aspire to be, but we often fall short of our aspirations don’t we.
The covers and overall consistent visual style of his books with their simultaneously over and under-designed aesthetic both did and didn’t work for me. I loved the visual simplicity and unified design, but something about these books always rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe they looked like they were trying too hard. Like they were so desperate to project an easy sense of ironic detachment that it backfired, leaving me with an instinctive distrust of the authenticity of their content. I always assumed Chuck Klosterman books were things you read in your early twenties, and never stopped extolling, without ever reevaluating the merits that informed your opinion later in life as a more experienced reader. I saw them as the kind of books read mostly by people who didn’t read anything else. I put them in the same category as Chuck Palahniuk novels, which I myself had read in my early twenties and couldn’t shut up about back then. Back when I never really read anything else.
Maybe I didn’t feel like I had much in common with my friends that read Klosterman, and even less with those who had only read Klosterman. I see now that I was trying to distance myself from the person I perceived myself to be back when I would’ve read Chuck Klosterman, if I didn’t only read Chuck Palahniuk. Wait, how many of my reasons for equating these two writers are based solely on them sharing the same first name? Am I that unknowingly surface level? Basically, I was being an asshole, and was completely wrong about Klosterman. It is entirely unfair to judge something based on our perception of its targeted audience, but we still do it all the time, or at least I do. It’s just one of the many, many ways in which we are often very wrong about most things.
Snapping back to the present moment, having now read this Chuck Klosterman book, I am realizing how off I have been on a lot of my assumptions about his writing. Which really is the point of But What If We’re Wrong. Human beings are wrong at a near constant level. We are so riddled with cognitive biases, irrational behavior, and misperceptions, not to mention our notoriously bad ability to predict future events based on present variables or our own current efforts. This is the entire reason that balloon payments are a thing. All of it adds up to make us terribly inaccurate and more often than not, dead wrong.
These days when I read something, I make every effort to build my opinions solely on the words on the page, attempting to judge the book based on whether or not it achieved what was intended. This is impossible of course, as I can’t help but be influenced by other aspects of a book, themselves sometimes only marginally related to the actual work itself. My perception of the readers of a certain writer for example. Also, how exactly am I supposed to know what a book was intended to be? How am I supposed to compare my subjective opinion of what it is, against something unknowable? Reading a book with the intent to write about it, is itself a creative process, because I have to imagine all of these things. There’s a weird, blurry line that separates fiction from non-fiction. There is so much fiction in real life, and so much real life stuffed into, and elaborated through what we read in fictional novels and stories. The more I think about it, the more that division begins to blur into something nearly non-existent. I blame David Shields for breaking my head by pointing out this added layer of our post-modernity.
Being wrong is important. As Klosterman notes in this book, certainty can often be paralyzing. It locks us into paths that may not be preferable, and takes us in directions we may not want to go. When we base our opinions on bad information, it is often only years later that we might realize we have been wrong about something from the start. A lot of Trump voters, for example are only just now, slowly, starting to admit not only that their God Emperor has no clothes, but is in fact not a god at all. Many will never allow themselves to be that wrong. It becomes gradually harder and harder to change our minds the more we have built up our lives on the certainty of bad information. The Sunk Cost fallacy is a prime example of this. As is the old adage, improperly attributed to Mark Twain: “It is easier to fool someone than convince them they have been fooled”. For this reason, your oldest opinions are often the most important to reexamine, as well as the hardest to change.
Thinking about the present as if it were the past is such a novel idea. Not only novel, but fun, incredibly useful and addictive. What are we wrong about right now? Our view of the past is always flavored by the values of our present. In much the same way that all good fiction is a statement about some aspect of the present in which it was conceived, it follows that our current values are blinding our judgement about current events, opinions, and ideas. What sort of values will future societies interpret our current events through? Which events will even be remembered as these future societies flatten our time period into a handful of individuals, stories, and pieces of media?
“History is a creative process (or as Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “a set of lies agreed upon”). The world happens as it happens, but we construct what we remember and what we forget. And people will eventually do that to us, too.”
Great stories are always about something other than the surface level plot they contain—something that Klosterman touches on quite a bit in the chapters about literature and media in this book. These chapters—which were the most aligned with my personal interests—were my favorites of the whole book. Klosterman uses this process of thinking about the present as if it were the past in an attempt to find the great contemporary pieces of literature, television, and film that will be elevated to the status of classic or important in an unknowable future with unknowable values. Of course, this attempt is doomed to fail, but using what we know about past classic or important works, he is able to at least narrow down what likely won’t be thought of as important in the future.
It is a fascinating thought experiment and a brave new way to approach one’s own relationship with history, opinion, belief, and the value of doubt. And that oh so recognizable black and white design aesthetic that didn’t quite work for me back in my early twenties? Here it is, turned up to eleven with this upside down cover. I’m glad to say that It works for me now. It really, really works for me.
But what if We’re Wrong? is one of the short list of books that I consider essential reading if you are trying to make sense of, or cope with, the insanity of the last few years. It provided me with some much needed distance from the twenty-four hour news cycle and the pre-apocalyptic feeling of our current events. I highly recommend this book.