Book Review – But What If We’re Wrong? Chuck Klosterman (Amberley – 2016)

This is an interesting non-fiction book that could be described as a thought-piece (speculative non-fiction maybe).  The author, Chuck Klosterman, points out that ‘This is not a collection of essays.’  He does seem to be rather talented at anticipating what the reader may be thinking at any given time and addressing it in his writing.
Klosterman tries to view our current world as it will be seen by future generations in many hundreds of years time.  Klosterman acknowledges that this might be a futile task as he will not be around to see if he is right and accepts that any prediction he makes is likely to be wrong.
He considers a wide range of current human knowledge and endeavours, including science, rock music, television, sports and democracy.  Klosterman carried out interviews with a number of authorities and people well known in their fields such as David Byrne, George Saunders and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Gravity is tackled early on.  Klosterman notes that Newton was right and then Einstein was right.  He asks if scientific theories will change in 500 years time or whether Einstein effectively ‘nailed it’ for all time.  We will never know but it’s a very interesting question.  How often do any of us think about gravity?  What if it is a manifestation of other forces currently beyond our understanding?  I was reminded of being studying for A levels at school where a number of science teachers told us that what we had learned up to that point was not wrong but a simplification of what the actual ‘truth’ was.
In questioning science, Klosterman appears to try the patience of Neil deGrasse Tyson, which is quite amusing in itself.
Rock music seems to be an area in which Klosterman feels more at home.  He talks about how we apply filters to the past to cope with complexity and settle on a few famous names as being typical of a genre or the best in their field.  I think this is true to an extent.  Most people will only have a passing acquaintance with classical music might be able to name a few composers and it would probably be safe to assume that Mozart and Beethoven would feature.  At first I thought ‘yes, but there are many classical music lovers out there who could name lots of composers and tell you which ones stand out’.   But then I realised that the point he is making is that, to the layman, Mozart or Beethoven would be their answer because it is accepted wisdom, they’ve been told since childhood that these composers matter.  It doesn’t matter whether they’ve heard any music by them or whether they actually like it.  Individual opinions do not have any impact on the collective view of Mozart and Beethoven now.
Klosterman argues that normal humans don’t possess enough information to nominate alternative possibilities.  He believes that most Americans would name Frank Lloyd-Wright as the greatest architect of the 20th century. Again, there seems to be some substance to this.  If I were to ask you who were the greatest:
1. Writer in the English language,
2. Greatest British Prime Minister.
3. Greatest British naval commander
the answers for many people would be the same.  Many answers would be based on accepted received knowledge and if a person had not read Shakespeare or knew nothing of the lives of Churchill and Admiral Nelson then it would not matter.
In talking about popular music, Klosterman comments that ‘weirdos get to decide what matters about the past, since it’s the weirdos who care the most.’  By ‘weirdo’ he means collectors, obsessives who feel marginalized by society and who were drawn to music that reflected those feelings.  This might suggest that importance is dictated by older white males.  As a reader of Mojo, this seems to ring true.  The letters page is regularly filled with obscure references and arcane knowledge wheeled out to highlight their deeper grasp of lore.
It is really interesting to consider our knowledge and how certain truths have been determined by society as a whole.  I suppose we could argue that how this process has worked in the past is no guide to how it might work in the future.
A chapter entitled ‘Don’t Tell Me What Happens.  I’m Recording It.’ Is an elliptical, obtuse monologue on what TV programmes will be treated as being significant in the future.  It seems to fizzle out in Klosterman’s own uncertainty as to what argument he is putting forward and whether it actually belongs in his book.
Chuck Klosterman writes engagingly and wittily.  It’s a good read even if you feel you are not really grasping his argument.  It’s heavy on subjective arguments and you might just think ‘what’s the point of reading this?’   It would certainly be futile to try to argue which scientist, musician, writer or artist would be regarded as the ‘greatest of the 20th/21st century’ in ,say, 500 years time.  However, the idea of looking at our own knowledge and accepted beliefs is a good one that can help us to understand ourselves better and challenge the status quo.  The book is rather like listening to a garrulous and funny friend opening up to you over a drink and that’s no bad thing.

Note:  Book pictured right way up!

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