But What if We’re Wrong – Chuck Klosterman

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.

What’s interesting is our communal willingness to assume most old stories may as well be true, based on the logic that (a) the story is already ancient, and (b) there isn’t any way to confirm an alternative version, despite the fact that we can’t categorically confirm the original version, either.

Extrapolate that phenomenon to forty years, or to four hundred years, or to four thousand years: How much of history is classified as true simply because it can’t be sufficiently proven false?

In this not-essay collection (as he asserts several times in the forward material), Chuck Klosterman tackles the topic of how we think about the past and how we think about the future, arguing that a) there are some seriously problematic thing about how we think about the former and b) we nevertheless need to think about the latter more like we think about the former. Klosterman’s operating principles are that there is too much information (and too many variables) for a person to grapple with all of them, that certainty as a way of stifling progress and inquiry, and that we are more likely to be wrong than we are to be right.

What ensues is a lengthy, frequently speculative thought experiment that runs the gamut from asking what musical artist will be passed down as the exemplar of Rock and Roll when there is only one Rock artist who is widely remembered, to asking famous scientists whether we have hit a point of diminishing returns in the field because universal constants like gravity have already been solved, to talking about historical conspiracies such as the Phantom Time Hypothesis. (This last one is the theory that certain epochs in human history are no more than agreed upon fictions, which make for fun discussion and better Onion articles. Klosterman includes lengthy quotations from conversations he had with cultural and scientific luminaries (some of whom would be counted as more expert than others), all building on the theme in question.

But What if we’re Wrong is not about answers, but rather questions, a book meant to be good to think with. In this regard, Klosterman is successful, even though the very nature of the book, combined with the conversational and journalistic tone, make some of the specifics of the argument rest lightly in my memory. I enjoyed reading the book and it has certainly influenced me in terms of how I think, but some chapters were stronger than others. I particularly liked the chapter “The World That Is Not There” that explores false certitude about historical events, while others at times wandered down rabbit holes that were relevant, but less successful.

Similarly, the cultural commentary in But What if We’re Wrong runs the risk of becoming rapidly dated, even if that ironically proves the core conceit worth considering. Perhaps the clearest example of this I noticed was the discussion of Rock and Roll that considers at length (and the dismisses) the possibility that the “true exemplar” is Bob Dylan. Nothing Klosterman writes is yet invalid, but his hypothetical future did not consider the possibility that Dylan would go down as a Nobel Laureate. Ultimately, though, this is a quirk of the topic that ought not discredit a book that deliberately avoids most polemical topics in order to make its own case that how we think about these issues ought to be considered in its own right—and Klosterman can therefore be forgiven for not necessarily following leads in a comprehensive way because to do so would simply be missing the point.

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I am currently reading Thebes at War by the Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, a book that was intended to be part of a forty-part retelling of the whole of Egyptian history. Thus far I am not finding it a particularly successful novel, but what it reveals about conceptions of Egyptian nationalism is fascinating.

Reading and order

Sometimes there is an obvious order books ought to be read in. I learned this the hard way many years ago when I read the Wheel of Time series in this order: one, three through seven….two. Things made quite a bit more sense once I read the second book. More than just pushing the plot forward, each book in a series adds characters and deepens or broadens the setting. But the question I’ve been thinking about recently is whether there is a more general principle in this regard.

In other words, is there a Platonic ideal for the order in which one reads books that maximizes a) enjoyment and b) the appreciation of the content of each? If so, what sort of pattern might it follow, taking into account fiction and non-fiction, the gender, orientation, cultural background of the authors, and genres?

Obviously not. This is an impossible hypothetical for any number of reasons. For one, there are simply too many permutations and too little time to label anything “essential.” For another, taste is subjective, so the list would have to be customized for each person. Nor does the awareness of a given book disappear upon closing the cover, so while the actual order in which the books are read will have some influence on the experience of the next book, the interpretation of books gone by (let alone books re-read) is open to revision upon further thought.

It might make some logical sense to equip this tabula rasa reader with the tools of literary and cultural criticism, honing sensitivity before unleashing him or her onto the the written word like a wolf onto sheep. If one were to prioritize deep appreciation of the book over the simple pleasure of reading. Yet not only does the reading work this way (the idea of equipping a kindergartner with Derrida’s deconstructionism before, say, The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar is laughable), but also it is impossible to gain a deep appreciation of literary and cultural criticism without first being steeped with culture (books, in this case).

This thought experiment works somewhat better for specialized subfields, particularly in terms of non-fiction, because a) this means that there are demonstrable bounds to the literature and b) there are things that might be termed foundational texts (and essays analyzing or debating those foundational texts, and on and on) from which the edifice of knowledge is constructed. These foundational texts are unavoidable; when thinking about the ancient economy, it is impossible to avoid dealing with Moses Finley. In this respect, it is possible to at least approach an ideal order in which to read the literature. Yes, the list would be politically charged based on the biases of the list creator(s) and, yes, the list would be limited by oversights, scope, and additions, not to mention issues of what methodological texts are “necessary” for a given topic, but at least it is possible to conceive of the task.

If this concept is an impossible absurdity, why have I spent nearly five hundred words on it? There are two answers to this question, both incomplete. The first is that it was a thought that came to me as I read Chuck Klosterman’s But what if we’re wrong? close on the heels of Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood and thus thinking about what it means for a novel to grapple with a given culture. The question I had was whether I would have had a fundamentally different reaction to Back to Blood if I had read them in a different order.

The second is a broader, more general experience I have had where the second of two books read in the same genre has seemed derivative of the first when they were, in fact, published in the reverse order. (The principle is equally applicable to any consumed media, really). This quirk inevitably shapes how the reader (listener/watcher/consumer) interprets both books and threatens to diminish the appreciation of the foundational book that now may be seen as unambitious, derivative, or inchoate, even though it forged the trail that made the second book possible—simply because it now exists coevally with the media that followed it and so may now be experienced afterward. And this is without considering intertexts that cross genres and the interplay between fiction and non-fiction.

Perhaps a single list is the wrong model. The all-encompassing Platonic structure, might look more like a three dimensional flowchart with near-infinite connections that can be entered from almost any point, depending on what one has already read, what one’s objective is in reading, and what book(s) one is working toward as an objective. Then again, this ceases to be a way to structure reading and becomes a visualization what already exists, provided that a reader cares enough to plan ahead.