Good Book

Book Review: “What If We Were Wrong”

Every so often, as a reader and a writer, you come across a writer whose work is so breathtakingly relatable that you are genuinely scared that there is someone out there who thinks like you and sees life through the same lens as you. You will agree with almost everything they write. Sometimes, some authors are contrarian, but you like the brilliance of their thoughts, like Lebanese-American essayist and mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

One writer and essayist I have always admired (and I am sure fans of Longreads all do) is American Chuck Klosterman. That man can write about Njah, and he will make you love the damn thing. Besides his journalism, I have collected his books, and they have been lying on my shelf for some years. Moreover, recently, I decided to read his 2016 treatise, “But What If We Are Wrong?”

This is an exciting book. The author conjectures about what in our present lives will still have importance in the long term future and how it will be appraised. It is a book about suitable prepositions and perspectives and also a book of criticism. The author faithfully devoted his time to questions about which books of our time will still be read many, many years from now and what songs and artists will look on as our age and time. What is the future of entertainment and sports? What is the future of United States democracy? Are we at the end of science, or do we not yet know what we do not know? Does the fact of the internet and artificial intelligence (AI)mean the end of the source of knowledge? Klosterman writes with much humor, some of it self-deprecatory. Still, he also considers his topics with high seriousness.

The book’s premise is simple: what if everything we know and believe in presently could be wrong in the future? The book is an assessment of the history of humanity and how beliefs change over time. Klosterman first big question is, what if 500 years from now, we will discover we are wrong about the force of gravity? After all, Aristotle, who was once the know-it-all, was wrong about gravity until Isaac Newton changed the game. The church once believed that the sun revolved around the earth until scientists in the 15th century proved otherwise. Galileo Galilei was jailed for publishing his thoughts on the same, and only recently did the church pardon him posthumously. Of course, by the time science and mathematics conclude, much research that is provable and verifiable has been done. Moreover, only a little in the scientific realm will change. Still, Klosterman does an excellent job speculating what theories we currently hold that could be rendered obsolete or obliterated by future scientists; after all, are scientists sometimes outdoing and undoing each other?

One theory that Klosterman holds I have held since I was young is how we interpret history. History, unlike science, is not static. Someone who is a hero today can turn out to be a villain in 50 years. If someone who was an R. Kelly fan died in 2008, for instance, were to rise from the dead, he would be shocked that R. Kelly is now incarcerated and will most certainly die in jail.

The first piece by Klosterman I read was in the New York Times, and he was speculating about who would go down as the most outstanding rock and roll musician. The piece is part of the book. Moreover, on the basis that Chuck Berry’s song, Johnny B Goode, was included as the eleventh track of disc 1 in the Voyager Golden Record that traveled into deep space in the late 1970s, out of our solar system, Klosterman said, Chuck Berry will be the greatest rockstar who ever lived. Klosterman argues that Rock as a genre died by the early 1970s. Despite the few rockstars who still do rock music, the utility of Rock was gone by the time the Vietnam War ended and the Beatles broke up. Moreover, in a sweeping jibe, he says nobody listens to Rock after graduating from college, except maybe if your name is Ibrahim S.

A few months ago, I angered some folks on social media when I said that in 2060, Badou Jobe and his Ifanbondi would be considered the most incredible African music of the previous 100 years. The basis of my argument was that starting in 2058, African countries will be celebrating 100 years of independence from various colonies, and out of necessity, those living by then will ask themselves who was (would be) the most remarkable African musician of all time. The obvious answer would be West African Musical melody. No contest. However, a few may opt for Salifu Keita, Morry Kanteh, Ifangbodi, Guelewar and Musa Ngom, Jaliba Kuyateh, Yankuba Saho, Sunjulu Suso, Fela Kuti, Youssu N’dour, and maybe Miriam Makeba or Baba Mal. However, my argument came down to Badou Jobe and the Ifangbondi. Badou Jobe is a superb guitarist, composer, and arranger, and his colleague Pa Touray vocally is not ranked anywhere, though his hoarse, authoritative tenor is recognizable; Pa Touray was a more extraordinary vocalist. With many songs composed and a career spanning almost decades, he lasted as long. Vocally, Musa Ngom was not the most gifted, and in many of his songs, he is mostly chanting what pure Mbalax fans may find gibberish.

However, Ifangbondi’s music did evolve over the years, but they remained rooted in Afro-Manding. Even when the Manding music shifted to the fast, eclectic Manding beat, it is, of course, a generational thing. I know kids who know Ifangbondi’s music of the last decade years but do not know or would not like Ifangbondi’s first album, which is forgettable. Because of these, plus he was more all-round as a composer, guitarist, and ever-changing, Badou Jobe and his band may be the artist with a more lasting impact.

However, Klosterman is keen to remind us that the present popularity of an artist only translates to longevity. Shakespeare could have been a better playwright of his generation. William Thackeray was a better novelist, but Dickens is remembered from that generation. Moreover, some books spurned by critics today are great classics in the future, for instance, The Great Gatsby.

Of course, future generations have the benefit of hindsight that living in the present robs us. Moreover, we should use something other than today’s standards to assess the past. The book is about how memory works. How do we remember things? How does histography work?

The book examines the stuff we think is popular today but will be less prevalent in the future. Boxing was such a big sport in the 20th century. However, nowadays, it lives on the fringes. Is it possible that something like American football will be dead? That is what Malcolm Gladwell suggested at a gig that Klosterman attended. However, Klosterman avers that the sport may only partially die but may go on to live on the fringes like boxing. The basis of American football dying is similar to that of boxing because both games are dangerous.

I wondered, too, if it would cause soccer to lose its appeal. Indeed, among proper football fans, modern football, obsessed with numbers and not talent, could be more attractive. Jeremy Clarkson, writing in his column a few years back, said that football looks all the same; it could be robots playing. He said the league has become so competitive, so artificial, that winning a game comes down to Steven Gerald slipping. If you watched Manchester United’s treble winners in 1999, where are they now? In the Everton-Arsenal game, where Everton won by a single kick from the corner, you catch the drift.

Klosterman asks, could robots replace humans in sports? This is possible considering how popular video games have become and how FIFA games have become realistic and improved daily. One day, stadiums will be gone, and if it is real players, they will play inside halls, and people will watch only on screen.

The book also speculates if the venerable American constitution is what makes it vulnerable and may lead to the eventual collapse of the American empire. In the same way, we believe in our constitution that we copied from Ghana, could our 1997 constitution become the biggest threat to our existence? Probable, and that was the wisdom of Gambians after the exit of despot Yahya Jammeh in trying to change it. Moreover, isn’t it ironic that Adama Barrow, who spent 116 million Dalasis for a new 2020 Draft Constitution and opposed the 1997 constitution, is now the most prominent defender?

Anyway, in the Gambia, if we look back, whom do you consider the best and worst president? Many will choose Adama Barrow as the best and Yahya Jammeh as the worst. However, an objective reading of history will be far kinder to Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara. It is a good book for speculative thinking that, if you like intellectual discussions, will power your muse. This was a beguiling and thought-provoking book, and author Klosterman takes an anthropological and sociological look at other cultural facets, sometimes asking outlandish but poignant questions. I particularly liked the part about Klosterman and writing and the section on the US Constitution. Overall, a great read! Also, Klosterman’s humor, wit, and prose are highly readable and entertaining.

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