There are a handful of nonfiction books I’ve read that will always stand out–head and shoulders–above the rest. The criteria I use when judging a nonfiction book are as follows:
- The quality of the writing.
- The complexity/ingenuity of the idea behind the book.
- The clarity with which said complexity/ingenuity is conveyed.
- How badly I want to read the book while in the process of reading it.
- How long I think about the book after reading it.
- Whether or not it holds my attention cover to cover.
- How often I find myself referencing the book in every day conversation with people who probably don’t give any semblance of a shit.
With these categories in mind, I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son stands out as a nonpareil. 10/10 across the board. If Kent Russell were an Olympic diver, all spectators would pause in awe at his elegance, at his splash-free entry, before erupting into a thunderous applause of such magnitude that Zeus and Thor would both be shaking in their proverbial boots.
Consider the Lobster gets six 10s and one 9. I’ll let you guess where the nine goes, but it’s probably not where you think.
Normally, these criteria provide me a pretty clear system with which I can judge a book. But Chuck Klosterman’s latest, But What If We’re Wrong is giving me a bit of a run for my money.
Quality of the writing: not quite Wallace and not quite Russell, but undeniably clear and concise and not elevated for elevation’s sake.
Complexity/ingenuity of the idea: Definitely, definitely, definitely 10/10 here. The future of football, simulation theory, the multiverse, the literary canon, the future of America–Klosterman covers it all and the arguments are sound, albeit some hard to get behind.
Clarity of complexity: There, but not all the way there. I found the more complex the idea was, the better he was at laying it out. I think a strike against him is that–particularly in the essay “The Case Against Freedom,” though he insists that this book is not a book of essays, and it doesn’t really read as one, was clear to the point of feeling baseless of lacking. Pure conjecture. Which the whole book is–pure conjecture–but none of the other essays felt like it.
How badly I wanted to read while reading: Didn’t want to put it down.
How long I’ve thought about it since completion: more than a fair amount.
Whether or not it held my attention: hands down yes.
How often I find myself referencing it with random people: to an annoying degree.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights. Here’s one of my favorite passages from the–what I thought was one of the weakest–essay on America and freedom. Klosterman is predicting how America’s extreme and arguably impractical reverence of the Constitution could lead to our demise. He imagines how a textbook would detail this fall of our country:
“The invention of a country is described. This country was based on a document, and the document was unassailable. The document could be altered, but alteration were so difficult that it happened only seventeen times in two hundred years (and one of those changes merely retracted a previous alteration). The document was less than fie thousand words but applied unilaterally, even as the country dramatically increased its size and population and even though urban citizens in rarefied parts of the country had nothing in common with rural citizens living thousands of miles away. The document’s prime directives were liberty and representation, even when 5 percent of the country’s population legally controlled 65 percent of the wealth. But everyone loved this document, cease it was concise and well composed and presented a possible utopia where everyone was the same. It was so beloved that the citizens of this country decided they would stick with it no matter what happened or what changed, and the premise of discounting (or even questioning) its greatness became so verboten that any political candidate who did so would have no chance to be elected to any office above city alderman. The populace decided to use this same document forever, inflexibly, and without apprehension, even if the country lasted for two thousand years.
Viewed retrospectively, it would not seem stunning that this did not work out.”
As I said, I found this essay to be one of the weaker ones, but this passage stopped me in my tracks and it is a fitting example of what the book is like as a whole. Klosterman takes ideas that we don’t ever question and he questions them. Not only does he question them, but he looks to historical examples–well-researched historical examples–and points out, hey, kinda sounds like us. Wouldn’t be shocked if we met the same fate.
He’s not afraid to look to the sacred and take a stance that might be seen as heterodox. The constitution is one thing, but the dissolution of American football? Takes some seriously meaty clackers to argue that football either won’t be a thing in twenty years or that it’ll be a fringe sport like boxing or UFC fighting where people watch it because they want nothing but unhindered violence and bloodshed and potentially death. But his argue for football is sound–seeing it as the final bastion of American manhood.
He also isn’t afraid to attack the modern-day sports fans and their 12 year old tendencies, describing them as “a limitless volunteer army of adults who resemble vitriolic versions of my twelve-year-old self.” Adults who say things like–and this is his example which bears a striking resemblance to 90% of text messages exchanged in the group texts between my college buddies–“How the Fuck Can You Not See That Tobias Harris Is More Efficient Than Carmelo Anthony You Illiterate Fucking Moron Who Is So Obviously Doing It Wrong.” A passage which had me in stitches but also had me thinking, shit, this is too real.
But I said this book gave me and my criteria a run for my money, and as I’ve been writing this I’m starting to understand why. I really fucking liked this book. You could say I loved it, but there are two main things holding me back.
One: the way he handled the Tom Brady deflategate interview for GQ. Tom Brady is a classy guy. I don’t think he’s guilty of anything except being Tom Brady and being fucking good. I’m not a football fan–I’m from New England but I cheered for the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. I actively cheered against the Pats in every Super Bowl in my lifetime. But there’s no fucking way Tom Brady did anything wrong, and Klosterman was a bit too pushy with him during a time where Tom didn’t need to be pushed by anybody else. However, that’s Chuck Klosterman’s job, so this indiscretion alone is not enough to condemn him, and it will not prevent me from recommending his book to literally everybody I know.
Two, and the bigger one: many brief incidents in which Klosterman seems overly apologetic. He’s always sort of gently and humorously denouncing his own claims. It was like when you make a joke that maybe went too far and nobody laughs so you’re like “ha…haha…just adding guys.” Even if the joke was funny, you’ve ruined it. Even if the joke went too far, you’ve only made things worse.
He’s making extreme claims and they’re probably not all correct, but I don’t pick up a nonfiction book to read thirty pages of an argument only for the same dude to argue against himself in a paragraph and make me think, eh, is he just taking these wild stances for shock factor? Is this book nothing more than click-bait I can hold? This book and its cool looking upside down cover? Nobody expects Klosterman to be 100% right in this book, and most of us probably either won’t be around to see if he’s wrong, and if he is wrong, we won’t be thinking “motherfucking Chuck Klosterman said x, y and z, but none of those things happened!” We’ll probably trying to navigate the changes in our own worlds, not standing by to denounce Mr. Klosterman. I found myself wishing he would dig his heels in, and sometimes he would, but given the occasional backtrack, it didn’t seem genuine.
This book gets some 10s, but it’s just not in the same league as Russell and Wallace. In my mind, to make a hockey analogy, David Foster Wallace is my Boston Bruins. I love him, lots of people fucking hate him. They won a cup, but there are new and better teams who are carrying his torch now (since the suicide), but he will always be first in my heart and 2011 will always be my favorite year of hockey. Kent Russell can be the Florida Panthers since that’s his team of choice. It works too, he’s young, up-and-coming, and damn good. I’d love to see Jagr win a cup as a Panther. Klosterman here, judging off this book only–this is tough–I guess I’d equate him/this book to a Minnesota/Ottawa/Calgary type team. All teams I like. All teams I have t-shirts supporting. But the B’s are my number one and I’ve developed a budding affection for the Panthers, and even though the Wild, Sens and Flames are all fun to watch, there’s something intangible keeping them out of my top tier of favorites.