I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Chuck Klosterman influenced a generation of writers and unconsciously blazed a path for how online critique and analysis would be presented in the first two decades of the 21st Century.
He came to the realization that “people want to think critically about the art that informs their life,” and has created a successful, impactful career as a result.
Klosterman began as a journalist in Fargo and Akron before moving on to national publications like Spin and Esquire, then served as the ethicist for The New York Times Magazine and co-founded the legendary Grantland, while also releasing unique and thought-provoking books every few years.
In July, 2013 I was able to see him speak and meet him afterwards as he promoted his book, I Wear the Black Hat.
While originally called a “hipster savant,” he ultimately became “America’s pre-eminent pop culture scholar,” and has even evolved beyond that with books that include science and medicine along with films and music.
In 2012, in his home state of North Dakota, Klosterman spoke about his unlikely, charmed career up to that point and his thought process with each book in a fascinating, funny speech:
He may no longer seem so unique due to the fact that so many now copy his style, but Klosterman is a unicorn and unlike most musicians and athletes he’s actually getting better at his craft — his later books are much tighter and more well-thought-out than most of his early work.
So what are Chuck Klosterman’s best (and worst) books? Let’s dive in.
12. The Visible Man (2011)
The Visible Man is an interesting idea: while working on a governmental project, a scientist developed a suit that refracts light in such a way that when he wears it he is basically invisible. The execution is not nearly as intriguing. The entire book is basically a dialogue between two people — the man and his therapist — that hinges on a flawed conceit with an ending that feels rushed and not fully realized. Klosterman has said that he wants his fiction to seem like journalism and while that’s admirable, it can also be a bit tedious.
Killing Yourself to Live is, in Klosterman’s words, “a book some people love and many people hate.” I didn’t hate it, but I certainly didn’t love it. Originally a 2003 Spin story, it is a road trip book that is different from the article — the Spin story is about the locations where various rock stars died, while the book is more about the journey between those locations — Klosterman’s life and experiences, particularly his romantic entanglements. Each chapter is a day, so the book feels like an early blog where the writer recounts his days, whether it is finding the intersection where two members of the Allman Brothers Band died almost exactly a year apart, or recounting his jog, shower, and interaction with a Cracker Barrel waitress. It has the Klosterman voice and is jarringly honest in places — particularly in regards to the three women that are woven into the story — but it is also pedantic and solipsistic.
10. Downtown Owl (2008)
It may seem reductive that two of three Chuck Klosterman’s worst books are his two novels, but his brilliance at nonfiction actually hinders his novel writing a bit. He has such a unique — and thus identifiable — voice and he has difficulty quelling that in his fiction, like his penchant for dropping (often obscure) pop culture references, which leads to novels that are fine, but not much more. Set in the fictional small town of Owl, North Dakota in the eighties, Downtown Owl ostensibly follows three characters leading up to a cataclysmic blizzard. The real main character, though, is the town itself and Klostmerman knows how that informs everything and everyone, and can feel all-encompassing because life in a small town consists of living…and not much else. The same could be said for the novel.
His fourth book (the IV in Chuck Klosterman IV is not “I.V.” but the Roman numeral four, a nod to Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, which is commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV), it is his first anthology, a collection of previously published works of journalism — profiles of Britney Spears and Steve Nash; interviewing Robert Plant; eating nothing but McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets for an entire week — with a short piece of fiction added to the end like a bonus track. It’s a fun read, but between the constraints of those publications and the (not great) short story, it’s a step below his other books, including the second anthology.
The first entry in an original, accomplished career, Fargo Rock City is not a history of hair metal, but the history of one isolated superfan’s relationship with hair metal. It is the basis for what the world has come to expect — and love — from Klosterman: the weaving of analysis and anecdotes, with objective criticism intertwined with subjective emotions and personal nostalgia. While not his breakout project, it did garner attention for the author’s unique voice as well as the decision to actually publish his phone number in the introduction:
Like watching a talented freshman athlete or seeing a band play in a small venue, it was not the most polished project, but the potential was clearly evident.
If this list were based strictly on influence, then Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs would be ranked number one, two, three, four, and five. It “somehow ended up becoming one of those generation-defining tomes that are practically issued to incoming freshmen on their first day of college.” The way so many pop culture sites are now built is based on this book, even if they don’t realize it. The genius of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is that Klosterman wrote about “low culture” (i.e., popular culture) as if it were highbrow — taking the approach and standards of The Atlantic or The New Yorker and applying it to things that those publications would never deign to even acknowledge, like The Real World, the 1980s rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, Star Wars, internet pornography, Saved by the Bell, and more. It is formatted like a CD (pages numbers are shown as track times) with interludes between chapters, but from a writing standpoint, it is not Klosterman’s best work. Some parts are a bit sloppy, some arguments become circular or even contradict themselves, and it doesn’t have the timelessness of some of his later books. However, in 2003 it was startlingly original and deservedly became both massively popular and incredibly influential.
What makes a villain? And why are villains often more interesting than heroes, both in art and in life? It’s a worthy topic — maybe. A collection of loosely collected essays, there are sections of I Wear the Black Hat, like his juxtaposition of O.J. Simpson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, that nail the thesis, but other parts are only half-developed and full of tangents, resulting in a mixed bag, probably because the concept may not actually have enough heft to support an entire book.
5. Chuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century (2017)
His tenth book and second anthology, Chuck Klosterman X used the same naming convention as IV and, again, people were confused and called it “X” rather than realizing it was the Roman numeral ten. This anthology is clearly better than the first — the writing is stronger; the thinking is sharper; and the subjects (Tom Brady; Jonathan Franzen; Kobe Bryant; Taylor Swift) are startling when collected together like this. There are also pieces for Grantland, including one, “Three-Man Weave,” that Klosterman says is the best thing he’s ever published.
4. Eating the Dinosaur (2009)
His return to original essay collections, Eating the Dinosaur is focused on the nature of reality and how we interpret this reality — is this culture really happening or is it a construct that we create and then move through? Klosterman focuses on what is considered “real” through analysis of Ralph Sampson, voyeurism, the nature of football, Garth Brooks, the marketing of Pepsi, and other seemingly unrelated topics. It’s vintage Klosterman — nearly three hundred pages smartly obsessing over things that most people don’t even consider for a moment.
3. Raised in Captivity (2019)
A collection of 34 very short (“micro”) stories in the vein of The Twilight Zone — a whale being struck by lightning changes a man’s life; coin flips are no longer 50/50; a man finds a puma in the bathroom of an airplane; siblings deliberately start a cult; etc. — Raised in Captivity is easily the best fiction of Klosterman’s career because it allows him to introduce his wacky premises through his unique worldview and wrap them up in a few pages rather than trying to stretch them into 200+ pages. If Eating the Dinosaur focused on the veracity of reality, Raised in Captivity focuses on the opposite.
2. The Nineties (2022)
If a thirty-year-old Chuck Klosterman had written The Nineties, it would have been full of nostalgic asides and stories full of personal interactions with the subject matter like Ross Perot, Seinfeld, Michael Jordan’s baseball sabbatical, Nirvana, Y2K, Pauly Shore, and even the concept of “selling out.” That could have been fun, but we’re fortunate that it was actually written by the older, wiser Klosterman, because it takes an objective approach, not looking at the decade now nor looking at it through a memoirist lens, but rather “how the decade was understood as it unfolded.” Smart, funny, and packed with interesting bits, this analysis of the “last decade” proved Klosterman continues to get better.
It’s difficult, nearly impossible, to consider that what we currently take for granted will one day be seen as wrong, if not ridiculous. 2,400 years ago, Socrates posited that rocks fall rather than float because they considered the ground to be their home and that’s where they want to be. Of course, we now know that’s not the case — so what are we sure about today that will seem ludicrous in a few centuries? Klosterman attempts to answer this from the perspective of someone living far in the future — with their hindsight but without our present biases. Not only limited to fields like science and medicine or even our perception of time, But What If We’re Wrong also examines subjective topics, like what current authors will be considered geniuses, what musicians will represent entire genres of music (like John Philip Sousa has become the representation of all marching music), and how will current sports and entertainment be reconsidered in the future? It’s plausible that this is one of those books used by future scholars in trying to understand our current world and it’s a book that only Chuck Klosterman could conceive.
Christopher Pierznik is a longtime Chuck Klosterman fan and the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.
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