When Chuck Klosterman thinks of Philadelphia, he thinks of statues. Tons of statues. And fountains.
It’s not exactly the first image that comes to mind for most people who know Philly but then again Klosterman isn’t like the rest of us, having become one of the 21st-century’s most popular essayists for his unorthodox reflections on pop culture.
Wednesday night, Klosterman will speak at the Free Library about his latest book, But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past. It basically looks at knowledge we accept to be fact and questions whether we’ll do the same in the future, as well as who and what will be remembered hundreds of years from now.
Billy Penn talked to Klosterman about his thoughts on Philadelphia and the new book. The conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Do you come to Philly much?
I don’t think I’ve ever been there just like as a tourist. I was here supporting the last book, I Wear the Black Hat. The library there is fantastic. Here’s the main thing, the memory I have of Philadelphia. Whenever I’m there I don’t have a car, so I’m walking around. Maybe this a known fact and maybe everyone will say this: I feel Philadelphia has to have the most statues per capita of any city in America. There are so many statues in Philadelphia it’s crazy. I walk around and see statue after statue after statue. I think it’s this area of town, but then I have to go to this other place and I see statues. I walk around and look at statues.
In Manhattan there’s so many people living on top of each other you don’t really see any statues. Philadelphia is a little more spread out I guess.
Is there a higher number of fountains there, too?
I don’t think so (Ed.’s note: We have 50-plus fountains and 300-plus public sculptures, most of which are of dudes). So, statues and fountains, that’s your Philadelphia?
I will say that the people who come to my reading are always exceptionally friendly, which of course contradicts the reputation of Philadelphia people constantly throwing batteries, although I’m 100 percent certain I make that reference every time. I just think it’s hilarious.
My main relationship to Philadelphia is through sports, as it is with many other cities. When I think of Philadelphia, that’s what I think about. I used to think of it as the capital of the country. The Philadelphia fans are the most hilarious fans there are.
The first baseball team I liked was the sort of the Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Tug McGraw Phillies team that was in like 1980. I was like 8 years old. They were the first team I liked. In football, because I was a big Cowboys fan, I kind of hated but was obsessed with the Eagles as the Cowboys’ rival. And I was also a huge Celtics fan so I had the same relationship with the Sixers. Simply because of sports I viewed Philadelphia as a major town. They just seemed to me like they were good at all sports.
Why that Phillies team?
When you’re a real little kid you tend to gravitate to whoever is the best and during that period Mike Schmidt was the best player in baseball. You’re a front runner when you’re a kid, and they were good. I don’t know if I had much more logic beyond that. When you’re 8 years old how critical can you be?
I still find it hard to believe you’ve only been down here a couple times, given you live in New York.
When I first moved to New York in 2002 one of the sort of hot cliches people were saying was that Philadelphia was now the sixth borough of New York, and you could reasonably live in Philadelphia and commute to work every day. It’s a real sort of thing in a sense. I moved to New York from the Midwest, but it’s just really hard at times to come up with a reason to leave New York outside of getting away from an urban landscape. So if I leave New York I’m going to go to the beach or the woods or the jungle. Not to a different city.
How’d you get the idea for What If We’re Wrong?
I was watching the Fox reboots of the series Cosmos. I was sort of intrigued by science history where they pointed out where essentially everyone in the world believed one thing and one individual who might be lost to history had this new discovery and time went forward where we had this similar idea. I thought this must be happening now and we’re just not aware of it.
The reality people thought they were experiencing was wrong. Is the reality we’re experiencing potentially wrong?
There’s literature and music and science and politics and sports — the idea of how history is created. Then also, there’s sort of a little bit on the possibility that we’re actually right this time and what it means if we have come to the end of the quest for knowledge.
Could we be right?
The history of ideas says no. Being wrong is part of the experience of being alive. But because of our heightened reliance on math as a way of proving things and the ability of the internet to curate and make knowledge more accessible does indicate the possibility for rightness is greater. Things are not as debatable as they used to be. Once you sort of kill the debate, that knowledge freezes, even if it’s wrong. If we are wrong, then it’s going to feel right forever.