By Philip Wallace, Marketing Systems & Content Analyst
Over the years, Chuck Klosterman has made a name for himself as a cultural critic in a wide range of journalistic venues ranging from the music magazine Spin to The New York Times. in his latest book, But What If We’re Wrong, Klosterman tackles both the minute and major details of life where facts and conventional wisdom are more open to debate than we previously thought.
Klosterman was born in 1972, just a few years after me, so we are both part of that Generation X cluster who finished our formative education and began the early part of our professional careers before the Internet changed everything. Yet, we were still young enough when the revolution came on the scene that we quickly reckoned with the many implications in our daily lives. I think this dichotomy shapes Klosterman’s insights as one who has a foot on each side of the information age divide.
Klosterman first grabs our attention with a cover design that has purposely been set with upside down text. His narrative casts a wide net, including a host of scientific concepts along the lines of gravity and astrophysics. Yet, for the purposes of our blog, I would like to share some of the tidbits most directly related to cultural content. In particular, I was intrigued by his musings about our artistic, entertainment, and sports culture.
BooksKlosterman explores shifting literary sensibilities, zeroing in on the distinction between those classic literary voices who were totally unknown in their lifetime, but eventually became part of the literary cannon. The primary example being Frank Kafka and Herman Melville, who had a small to moderate following in their day, but grew in prominence following their death due to shifting critical perspectives. Interestingly, Klosterman muses that in our era of the Internet and self-publishing, the pure Kafka model is becoming less plausible because the digital universe makes true obscurity harder to obtain. Yet, at the same time, the back bench of authors and books, so to speak, that experience marginal acknowledgment today, but could be brought into the spotlight by future scholars, is growing more plentiful.
Music Klosterman asserts that the wider public grounding in the multitude of figures from a particular musical era only lasts as long as there are significant
numbers of people still alive who can inform the discussion. So, when Klosterman was as twenty-something music writer, there were a fair number of
senior citizens still around who could chat about 1920s jazz musicians from a personal vantage point.
Yet, after the passage of another two decades, all but the heartiest citizens who witnessed the jazz age first hand are gone. So the figures preserved in our wider cultural consciousness have begun to blur considerably. And Louis Armstrong solidifies his prominence in this arena by virtue of being the performer from the era whose critical reception had won extra favor in the crucial years when first-hand experience began to give way into the writing of the history books.
TelevisionKlosterman claims that “must-see television” along the lines of Mad Men may very well deserve high praise for aesthetics or entertainment value. Yet, if future civilizations seek to view small-screen offerings purely for the purpose of learning about a particular era, the most representative examples come from “kitchen sink” situation comedies that aren’t purposely trying to re-create a time period or a culture. This may seem like a paradox, but Klosterman argues that the rawest aspects of a given place and time come through most authentically when the creative powers that be weren’t necessarily trying, or at least didn’t seem to be.
Sports Klosterman was a self-described sports nerd during his boyhood. His family did not have cable, so his athletic television offerings were limited to the three major broadcast networks of the time. Professional football watching was confined to two Sunday afternoon games and the first half of a Monday night match-up. (Klosterman had to contend with a strict bed time.) Basketball was even more limiting since the networks didn’t air actual games until the All-Star coverage later in the season.
Young Klosterman devotedly collected copies of The Sporting News. He obsessed over comparative statistics and informational details. Yet, when it came to actually watching games, his daily experience was rather paltry. The sports-loving kids of today have an infinite range of viewing experiences at their disposal through an array of digital devices; so much so that their understanding of what sports fandom entails bears little resemblance to the earlier era.
Hope this wets your appetite to explore more. Klosterman has a way of generating valuable discussion and introspection. At the end of the day, we may debate
the specifics of his examples. But I think there is a broader point that the work of preserving the pieces and parts of our civilization is tied to
major shifts in society itself. It sounds cliché, but often it really is the case that you just never know…
Book Title:But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking about the Present as If It Were the Past
Author: Chuck Klosterman
ISBN:9780399184123 | $26.00 HC | Blue Rider Press