“History is defined by people who don’t really understand what they are defining.” – Chuck Klosterman
I’ve been reading Chuck Klosterman’s work for well over a decade now. His early books — Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story and Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto — had me hooked on his eclectic thoughts and writing style.
Since then I’ve been reading his other books along with anything in Esquire, GQ, Grantland, The New York Times or anywhere else his work shows up (some of his best thoughts are always his guest spots on the Bill Simmons podcast, as well).
He started out as a music critic and I’ve also always enjoyed his takes on pop culture and sports. But lately I’ve come to think of Klosterman as more than a writer on music, TV, movies or pop culture. He’s really developed into a modern day philosopher in many respects.
In his work you can see that he’s constantly fleshing out his own thoughts. He rarely speaks in certain terms and is always willing to see every side of an argument — and many of those sides are the ones no one else is talking about. It’s actually a relief to read someone these days who doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out. He makes you think and lets you come to your own conclusions.
In a world of copycats, Klosterman is a true original.
I don’t always agree with his opinions or ideas but his writing always leaves the reader with new or interesting ways to view the world. That’s a rare trait when most people these days are more interested in confirming their own priors. He seems to always be questioning his own opinions or those of the collective wisdom.
His latest book may be his masterpiece. But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past could almost be required reading for future philosophy majors.
It seems there are plenty of people today who truly believe they’re being original but what they’re actually doing is being a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian. Many assume that taking a contrarian stance equates to more certainty in their own opinion.
Klosterman covers this in the book:
When you see the phrase “You’re doing it wrong,” the unwritten sentence that follows is: “And I’m doing it right.” Which has become the pervasive way to argue about just about everything, particularly in a Web culture where discourse is dominated by the reaction to (and the rejection of) other people’s ideas, as opposed to generating one’s own.
Every great thinker has to be humble. Klosterman questions himself and collective wisdom throughout the book:
We have no idea what we don’t know, or what we’ll eventually learn, or what might be true despite our perpetual inability to comprehend what that truth is.
Klosterman’s Razor: the philosophical belief that the best hypothesis is the one that reflexively accepts its potential wrongness to begin with.
We spend our lives learning many things, only to discover (again and again) that most of what we’ve learned is either wrong or irrelevant. A big part of our mind can handle this; a smaller, deeper part cannot. And it’s that smaller part that matters more, because that part of our mind is who we really are (whether we like it or not).
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.
Part of the reason this happens because we rely so heavily on storytelling:
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 into an explainable, reassuring narrative.
Klosterman sees the digital age as something of a double-edged sword in all of this:
We now have immediate access to all possible facts. Which is almost the same as having none at all.
We live in an age where virtually no content is lost and virtually all content is shared. The sheer amount of information about every current idea makes those concepts difficult to contradict, particularly in a framework where public consensus has become the ultimate arbiter of validity. In other words, we’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge. And while that notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing.
He follows up about the difference between books and the Internet:
A sentence in a book is written a year before it’s published, with the express intent that it will still make sense twenty years later. A sentence on the Internet is designed to last one day, usually the same day it’s written.
As with his previous writing efforts, there is a heavy dose of pop culture throughout the book. I especially loved his take on pop music:
It’s the only major art form where the opinion of a random fourteen-year-old is considered more relevant than the analysis of a sixty-four-year-old scholar.
Klosterman doesn’t touch on finance in the book but I believe these passages come pretty close to describing financial pundits and portfolio managers:
Every few months, something happens in the culture that prompts people to believe America is doomed.
At some point, if you live long enough, it’s probably impossible to avoid seeming crazy.
The whole point of the book, as the title would suggest, is about how wrong people in the present are about how things will be remembered:
It’s impossible to understand the world of today until today has become tomorrow.
There were many parts in this book that made my head hurt (in a good way). His chapters on science and the theory that we could be living in a giant simulation are trippy. And his thoughts on the NFL, politics and why certain things become popular or not are all extremely thought-provoking.
If nothing else, this book will make you question many of your strongly held beliefs.
We could all benefit from asking ourselves ‘but what if we’re wrong?’ on a regular basis.