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Book Scene: Insights into the present from our future selves in 'But What If We're Wrong?'

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but what if we're wrong

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YAKIMA, Wash. -- Chuck Klosterman is the first to admit that his newest book, “But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past,” is an exercise in futility. It is destined for irrelevance, but such is the destiny of any book that examines modern society; it carries an expiration date.

To demonstrate his self-awareness, Klosterman tips his cap toward his book’s inexorable slide into obscurity, titling his first chapter: “A Brief Examination as to Why This Book Is Hopeless.”

It makes for an inauspicious start, for the book and this review. Why, then, is this book worth reading? Simply put, it’s fun, witty, intellectually engaging and gives you plenty to think about.

“But What If We’re Wrong?” poses some heady questions: How will future civilizations view ours? Which events, people and pastimes will come to define us as a society? Which scientific ideas and practices will go the way of geo-centrism and blood-letting, now viewed as absurd and incontrovertibly wrong, the kind that makes people laugh, shake their heads, and say: “They believed what!?”

These are questions that are unanswerable in the present, and to try to answer them with any kind of specificity would be futile. Rather than divine the future, Klosterman examines, cue the subtitle: “the present as if it were the past.”

To add legitimacy to his pontifications, Klosterman interviews innovative thinkers in a disparate variety of fields to get their input on which widely held beliefs and conceptions may not stand the test of time. The likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson, George Saunders, Richard Linklater and Brian Greene, among others, make appearances to lend their two cents to the thought experiment.

Let me highlight one section I really enjoyed. Klosterman pays particular attention to the transitory nature of notoriety and fame. Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” as he points out, was critically panned upon its release, and Franz Kafka was virtually unknown during his lifetime. Yet “Moby-Dick” is now regarded as one of the most significant American novels ever published, and Kafka is one of the defining authors of the 20th century.

They’ve become inexorably perched in the canon of English literature; whether you agree with their literary merits or not is irrelevant. Neither “Moby-Dick” nor Kafka can be swept under the rug when discussing the history of literature; they’re core to conversation.

Given the cultural shift in how we view and appraise the likes of “Moby-Dick” and Kafka of course asks us to wonder which authors, musicians and works from our own time will undergo a similar renaissance in their public perception. Who will be the unsung Kafkas of our time? Which highly acclaimed works will be forgotten in time? Again, we can’t know, and any speculation, no matter how reasoned, well-informed or logical, is likely to be wrong. But gee, it’s sure fun to think about. Is it productive? No. It doesn’t need to be.

This book, is, I think, well-suited for book clubs. It naturally lends itself to discussion and speculation over drinks or dinner. If you’re looking for something a little different, be sure to check out “But What If We’re Wrong?”

• “But What If We’re Wrong?” was published this month by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It retails for $26.

• J.T. Menard works for Inklings Bookshop. He and other Inklings staffers review books in this space each week.

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