'But What If We're Wrong:' A Look At How We Will Remember The Now, Later
'But What If We're Wrong:' A Look At How We Will Remember The Now, Later
NPR's Kelly McEvers talks with author and cultural critic, Chuck Klosterman. His new book But What If We're Wrong investigates which things we take as certainties might one day be proven wrong.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
What if everything we think that's important or interesting or relevant right now will be totally insignificant in the future? Or what if something we don't really appreciate today will be considered great in 200 years, like how people didn't think much of "Moby Dick" when it was written, but now we think it's pretty great? These are the questions that critic Chuck Klosterman asks in his new book. In it, he tries to predict how we will remember the present when it is the past. And he's not too worried about whether he's right or not.
CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: You know, I mean, that's kind of one of the upsides to writing a book like this. I mean, even if I am horribly wrong, of course, we'll all be dead.
MCEVERS: The new book is called "But What If We're Wrong?" I talked to him about it this week.
KLOSTERMAN: I kept thinking about the way that the history of ideas seems to suggest that virtually everything we fundamentally accept is going to seem absurd to people in 100 or 300 or 1,000 years. So what I tried to do was think about the present day using the criteria we use to think about, say, the 14th century because it doesn't seem the same as the criteria we use for looking at the culture, you know, in a normal, sort of everyday way.
MCEVERS: And so to do this, you got some help, right? You interview a lot of people.
KLOSTERMAN: I did, yeah.
MCEVERS: Many of them dudes - George Saunders, Jonathan Lethem, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Richard Linklater. And you asked them to talk about what will be remembered and how it will be remembered. You tackle literature, music, thought itself. I want to talk about a few of the different, you know, categories that you look at. And of course, I want to start with rock music.
MCEVERS: You're basically trying to figure out what rock will come to signify in the future. And what is your conclusion?
KLOSTERMAN: Well, it kind of started by thinking about John Philip Sousa and marching music. You know, everybody is familiar with marching music. It's very durable. You hear it on the Fourth of July and you hear it at college football games. And, you know, if somebody was making a movie about, you know, the late 19th century they could just put marching music in and it would immediately tell people this is the period we're dealing with. And I started thinking about the way it feels as though rock is rapidly receding from the culture. And there'll be a time when rock music will seem like marching music. And what happens with something like marching music as it ends up becoming defined by one person. It's like time marches forward and all the people who create something sort of fall by the wayside until there's eventually one individual. And then...
KLOSTERMAN: ...The significance of that individual is wildly amplified. With marching music, this was with John Philip Sousa. So my question became who will this be with rock music? Now the obvious answer, the thing that seems most rational would be the Beatles. And yet we don't live in a rational world. So I kind of went through all the possibilities of who it might be if it's not the most obvious answer.
MCEVERS: And who'd you come up with?
KLOSTERMAN: My ultimate conclusion would be that, while of course, all of these things are impossible to know, Chuck Berry seems like a real sensible answer this question, I guess, based on the idea that what may happen is the things that are remembered about rock music are just kind of the specific tropes about it. Specific keys, like its simple, rhythm-based music. And it was black music that was kind of mainstreamed by white people. And it came from the South, and it had kind of perverse sexual intrigue in all of these things. And those tropes match up with the life of Chuck Berry in a way that might make it seem as though he might be a good way to - for someone who has no knowledge of this to understand what it is in a distant future.
MCEVERS: You take on a lot of things in this book - physics, gravity. There's also a chapter on politics. You argue that this whole era of democracy we live in could just be an anomaly, right?
KLOSTERMAN: Yeah. You know, one thing that I always find very sort of fascinating is Americans' almost unilateral adoration of the Constitution, to the point where if a political candidate was like, hey, you know what? The Constitution is not that great, it's really holding us back - like, he couldn't even become city alderman, OK? And yet, I thought to myself, think about if you were reading about a fallen society, a previous superpower. And one of the things that they indicated was that this society was built on a relatively short document, and the document was very difficult to change. Wouldn't it seem obvious that this thing that was once a strength would eventually become a weakness? Because I kind of think all things that are strong become weak over time.
MCEVERS: I mean, one suggestion that you make in here, in this section on politics, is that this idea of having a bad president doesn't really matter. You write (reading) if James Buchanan truly was the worst president, his failure has had about as much impact on contemporary society as the cancellation of "Two And A Half Men," the TV show (laughter).
KLOSTERMAN: Well, yeah. I mean, it would be - like, it's pretty hard to point to a problem in contemporary society that is a reflection of James Buchanan's presidency, even though historians now pretty much across the board say he was the worst president. It's weird - when I was in college, everybody said it was Grant.
KLOSTERMAN: Now the answer has become Buchanan. Somehow Grant has moved up. He's only, like...
KLOSTERMAN: ...The seventh worst president now. I mean, I guess in a way you could say it's sort of like recency bias, that we sort of always view that the most important time in the history of the world is now and that our understanding of the world right now is going to exist in perpetuity.
MCEVERS: I'm thinking about you as a critic writing this book. And I wonder if you were in a kind of crisis yourself. Like, you're working through this question of what you do every single day, which is assign value to things in this present moment. And in this book you're saying, wait a second, maybe that's a flawed exercise. What if none of this matters? Is that why you decided to write this book, to kind of work through that?
KLOSTERMAN: Oh, no. No.
MCEVERS: No? (Laughter).
KLOSTERMAN: No, I wasn't going through any crisis. You know, it's not really practical to do criticism in this context, right? Like, for the person trying to figure out whether or not they should download Drake on iTunes, they're not really concerned about how it's going to fit into the historical continuum. But, like, if you're in a position where you can think about these things as not kind of temporary works of interest but as ways to understand a reality that will no longer be accessible to anyone - I mean, once time passes, it is gone.
So all we're kind of left with are these artifacts, you know? I mean, to me that's a different and kind of more profound kind of criticism. And, you know - and to say that, like, you know, looking at, you know, film or politics or whatever the case - sports - what does it really mean? It doesn't mean anything - I didn't need to write the book to know that. There's some truth - I mean, there's some inherent truth in that, right?
Anybody who - the more you learn about culture, more you realize that it's just sort of like a reflection of the people living at the time. But just because it's not essential to our existence necessarily doesn't mean it doesn't have significance. It has significance to the people who care about it.
MCEVERS: That is Chuck Klosterman. His new book is "But What If We're Wrong?" It is out on Tuesday. Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK 'N' ROLL MUSIC")
CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) That's why I go for that rock 'n' roll music, any old way you choose it. It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it any old time you use it. It's got to be rock 'n' roll music if you want to dance with me. If you want to dance with me. I took my love -
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