Chuck Klosterman, The (Sort of) Reformed Multi-Tasker

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Chuck Klosterman is the bestselling author of seven books of nonfiction (make that eight now) and two novels. He solved moral dilemmas for The New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist column for three years, co-founded the website Grantland, and once appeared in a documentary. He has also contributed regularly to The Washington Post, GQ, Esquire, Spin, The Guardian, The Believer, Billboard, The A.V. Club, and ESPN. Over the last couple of decades, he has not only analyzed popular opinion on entertainment, sports, music, and philosophy; he has helped define it.

No wonder, then, that it’s about time for another greatest hits collection. (He has done this before with prior work, in IV.) The aptly named Chuck Klosterman X — his tenth book — offers essays and articles from the past decade that best stand the test of time, including astute observations on cultural subjects ranging from Breaking Bad to Mountain Dew, from zombies to steroids to Chinese Democracy, with in-depth profiles and colorful commentary on pop culture figures including The Beatles, Jonathan Franzen, Taylor Swift, Tim Tebow, Kobe Bryant, Usain Bolt, Eddie Van Halen, and both Charlie Brown and the Cleveland Browns. Newly added introductions and footnotes tie the whole thing together. If you’re a person alive today, there is something in here for you.

To see what made the cut for Chuck Klosterman X, you’ll have to read the book. What we can tell you is that the Klosterman-style collision of ideas shines to great effect in this collection. We hope you’ll join us when he visits Parnassus on Tuesday, May 23. Meanwhile, here’s a little Q&A between Klosterman and our Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott. Enjoy:

You’ve been described as a “culture guru.” For a time there, you had a lot of projects overlapping at once — multiple different columns, TV projects, etc. on subjects ranging from sports to music to history to human behavior. . .  Do you still multi-task that much? 

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 11.43.01 AMCK: This is an interesting question. The scenario you describe was certainly true, once — around 2004 or 2005. I was writing books, I had a full-time job at SPIN, I had a monthly column in Esquire, a monthly column with ESPN, and I feel like I said “yes” to basically any offer that was presented to me, partially because I assumed saying no to anyone would cause the offers to disappear. As it turns out, the opposite is true — the more you say no, the more you get asked. But I didn’t think like that at the time, and I had a lot of natural energy, and I had access to a lot of unnatural energy, and it was just exciting to have so many people inexplicably interested in what I was doing. It didn’t feel difficult, and the paradoxical thing about writing is that working constantly is easier than working periodically, because you spend less time fixating over every detail and every imperfect thought.

But I’m not like that anymore. I write much more slowly now, which is both good and bad. I think the writing itself is technically way better than it used to be, and the ideas are less scattershot. But at the same time, I realize most readers don’t necessarily care how skilled an author is. They tend to gravitate toward things that feel loose and crazy and unpolished, which comes across as more “real” (or whatever). So I don’t know if literary maturation is good or bad. In truth, I suppose the main difference is that in 2004 I was single, and now I’m married and I have two kids. My entire life is different, so it would stand to reason that my writing is also different.

Do you find it easy to talk with anyone, or is it hard to find a good conversation partner? 

CK: I can interview anyone, so as long as the conversation is one-sided — if it’s just me asking the other person questions — I can talk to anyone. But having a real conversation is hard. I live in a city with seven million people, and there are about seven people in the entire town I enjoy talking to.

As a music-lover, have you spent much time in Nashville? 

CK: Actually, yes. A friend of mine from college — her name is Amy Everhart — is a lawyer in Nashville, so sometimes a small group of us who worked together at our college newspaper will go down to Nashville and hang out. I really like going to the bars on Broadway. I wish there was a rock city like this, where you could just walk from bar to bar and hear top-flight rock music for free. I suppose Austin is like that, a little. But the talent level in Nashville is way higher. I can’t believe how many waitresses in Nashville can just step on stage at three in the afternoon, kill a Miranda Lambert song, and then step off stage and go back to work.

But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present as If It Were the Past (yes, it has an upside-down cover) is now available in paperback.

Here’s a philosophical question for you: As you pointed out in But What If We’re Wrong?, we can’t really be objective about the present as we’re living it. If it’s true that we’re probably operating on a bunch of wrong assumptions right now, how do we motivate ourselves to keep going and not feel hopeless? 

CK: I think the first step is asking, “Why do I need to be right about the nature of reality?” I don’t have any problem living in an unstable reality. This is kind of a secular version of the complexity of faith. People use the phrase “blind faith” pejoratively, but faith has to be blind in order to be meaningful. Having faith in something that can be readily seen is just rational behavior. That’s not faith at all. The experience of being alive would matter less if we understood every detail about it.

X lets us look back at what you’ve been up to over the past several years. Let’s look forward, too: What’s coming up for you? Have you begun obsessing over your next big idea?

CK: I’m currently working on a project that might be impossible. It basically requires me to come up with 50 to 100 unconnected ideas, execute each idea in the space of 1,000 words, and then have all the ideas intertwine without the benefit of a narrative or plot. Maybe it won’t work. But that’s how it goes. I gotta try. “We go to the moon. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

What have you read and loved lately?

CK: The new Jeff Guinn biography about Jim Jones is excellent. I want to read that book Shattered about the Clinton campaign, so maybe I’ll go after that next. I recently read a book about Elvis called A Lonely Life that was pretty decent. Derek Thompson’s Hit Makers is maybe the best book I’ve read this year. But to be totally honest, the only chance I get to read anything complicated is when I’m on a plane without my kids, and I haven’t flown anywhere this year, so I haven’t read very much.

And finally — we ask everyone: what’s your favorite thing about bookstores?

CK: During the 90s, I used to constantly hang out in bookstores, based on the logic that — if I did this long enough — I would eventually meet a woman who was interested in the same books as me, and we would have sex. That never happened. But I think my favorite thing about bookstores is that they create an atmosphere where that kind of ridiculous theory still seems totally plausible.

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Can’t get to Nashville for the event? Order the book you want signed, and indicate in the notes at checkout whether you’d like a special inscription.

Chuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century Cover ImageChuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century