Chuck Klosterman is an idiosyncratic essayist who does not seem to aspire to be influential or even important. He’s something of a gadfly, exploring topics others neglect or don’t notice. He’s written about real and imaginary villains, heavy-metal rock in North Dakota and “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto.”
In “But What if We’re Wrong?” (and yes, the book jacket is supposed to be upside-down) he takes on the really big picture, asking a question that is childlike or profound, probably both: How do we know anything, much less understand how it corresponds to a reality outside of us?
We have personal experiences, sensations, memories. For everything else, we rely on experts. And they largely rely on previous experts and any given era’s consensus view. How, for example, do we know what gravity is, or even that it exists? Newton himself didn’t understand it; it was the only answer that fit his mathematical formulations. Einstein upset our notions of time and space, showing that both could be warped.
We can’t be sure we’re the only existing universe; infinite numbers of multiverses whose characteristics contradict ours are likely, although, given our particular human brain, we can’t imagine their content or prove or disprove this theory.
Language, and our biological gift for it, is not in Klosterman’s purview (although it could have been). Otherwise, he ranges far and wide over the realm of known knowns and known unknowns. He looks into sports, rock ’n’ roll, architecture, famous writers, the Constitution, democracy, television and history in general.
How do we know that the French Revolution happened? Did Jesus and Louis XIV exist?
The only thing we can be sure of is that our descendants will see our period differently than we do. What we know as incontrovertible will be questioned or forgotten. We know that Bach and Shakespeare are intrinsically great and important, but Klosterman argues they are placeholders for all the “great” musicians and writers we don’t know about. History is selective because there’s only so much we can wrap our heads around.
The internet is not helpful. It remembers everything but values nothing, or puts everything on the same level. So what will our descendants know about us? It’s a “recalcitrant question: What makes us remember the things we remember?” What will they choose to define us?
Who knows? Klosterman concludes, ending with the unanswerable questions he started with. He writes with self-deprecating humor in an endearingly informal style that makes his philosophical inquiries easy to read. But what I take away from reading is, so what? Whatever we discover, or never will, we’ll live our daily lives regardless of the big picture, if there is one.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis and a past winner of the NBCC Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.