Prolific pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman tackles his most ambitious project yet in new book What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, which combines research, personal reflections and interviews with the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Junot Díaz to ponder how future generations will view ideas we hold true today. We caught up with Klosterman before his June 9 visit to the Brattle Theatre.
I think I’ve been kind of unconsciously thinking about this for several years. My last two books were kind of dealing with larger, more abstract questions—but it’s like you don’t even know why you came up with an idea until you’re already done with it.
How did you begin to tackle a subject like this? There were two catalysts. I was watching Cosmos, and the most interesting parts to me were whenever he’d discuss science from the 15th century, and how everyone thought something about the world—and then some individual, who was often lost to history, made some discovery or had some new idea, and everything shifted. Within a generation everyone assumed that this was what we’d always thought. It occurred to me that this must happen all the time, but it’s impossible to understand while it’s happening. Around the same time I was reading about Herman Melville and how he perceived Moby Dick as his masterwork, but then it came out and it didn’t do so well. It ruined his life and kind of ended his writing career. It wasn’t until after World War I that there was this rediscovery of the book. So the first case was objective—science. And the second case was subjective—how we value art. But how does one go about doing it? I don’t know. You just do it; you just start typing. [Laughs.]
What did you aim to accomplish with this book? My books are fundamentally entertainment. I hope that they’re intellectual to a certain extent, but I’m not trying to persuade people or change the way anyone thinks about reality. I’m just trying to suggest that maybe there are more ways to think about reality than we generally comprehend.
And to write a book with the intention of changing how people think might end up being a self-defeating endeavor… Yeah, it would be odd to work from that perspective, but it would also be paralyzing, in the sense that you’d constantly be thinking “Well, if this plan works, I’ll then be responsible for whatever shift it makes in the world.” I think that would be a terrible feeling.
What are some beliefs we currently hold as unequivocally true that you think will be disproved in the future? This is the thing: It’s not a book of predictions. I’m not saying “Well, we believe X so the answer will end up being Y.” But, for example, in the section about rock music, I do believe that the rock artist who will be remembered will be the Beatles. However, the history of ideas insists that our assumption is probably wrong. Because it’s happened over and over and over again.
Any favorite interview subjects? I had a lot of fun talking to Richard Linklater. I find him to be a very interesting person…. I was talking to him on the phone, and I think he was sweeping the floor. It was a very off-the-cuff and natural interaction. But the idea in talking to all these people was to figure out what the conventional wisdom was. Because if you’re going to have a book about things we might be wrong about, first you have to establish what do we believe.
Oh, well, now I wish I could have interviewed Prince! That would have been great timing. But someone like Carl Sagan—who’s not alive—he was the kind of person who was thinking about this stuff all the time, so he would have been a great source. And in the literature chapter, for example, I would have liked to talk to Jonathan Franzen—but he wasn’t interested in talking.
Anything you learned while writing the book that surprised you? Well, I’d be thinking about a question and what was widely assumed the answer would be, and I’d be trying to think about alternative possibilities. But as soon as you think of one of these things you get the sense of “Well, does that contradict my premise?” Because I’m trying to write about thoughts that had not been previously considered. But the second I thought them, that was over. That was the biggest problem—any time I had an idea that seemed original, it was immediately unoriginal, because I’d had it! [Laughs.]