Eating the Dinosaur

I consider the majority of Chuck Klosterman's work a joy to read. I'm usually not the type to laugh out loud while reading (though I have burst into tears while engrossed in a novel from time to time), but Klosterman's essays are often the exception to this general rule. His musings on pop culture, riddled with sometimes obscure and other times not-so-obscure references, are always funny and never dull. And they make me chuckle to myself and sometimes burst into full on laughter at unexpected and unpredictable moments.

With equal doses of self-deprecation, mindful consideration, and trademark humor, Klosterman has written yet another clever and engaging compilation of essays on topics as varied as the Unabomber, advertising a la Mad Men, Ralph Nader's love life (or lack thereof), the psychology of an interview, Garth Brooks' alter ego Chris Gaines, the horror of the laugh track, and football. The topics covered in Eating the Dinosaur are, quite obviously, as diverse as Klosterman's interests. But what I find especially remarkable is Klosterman's ability to write with such a particular voice as to make all thirteen of these essays, focused as they each are on such specific and disparate subject matters, flow seamlessly in a single volume.

Reading through most of these pieces, I felt compelled to post about each individual essay rather than the volume as a whole. I think that is what I love most about Klosterman's work - he always draws questions or raises points of consideration that are compelling conversation starters (see "The twenty-three questions I ask everybody I meet in order to decide if I can really love them" on page 126 in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs). Rather than posting a blanket review to cover all my bases, I wanted to take the time and go through piece by piece, sharing all of Klosterman's most interesting insights while working out my own responses to his perspectives. I figured this would bore the majority of my readers and take the fun out of it all, so I'll just hope that someone out there has already found themselves similarly impressed, entertained, and/or engaged by Eating the Dinosaur. There are a few points, however, that I just couldn't help myself but dedicate at least a few moments to meditating upon.

"The upside to knowledge is that it enriches every experience, but the downside is that it limits every experience." Klosterman makes this statement in a chapter on voyeurism, the classic Hitchcock film Rear Window, and whether or not ignorance really is bliss. He takes readers on an interesting journey among these topics, but I find this particular conclusion to be more interesting of all. Sure, sometimes having knowledge can improve whatever it is that we're experiencing. Having an understanding of why things work the way they do or of the context of a particular situation opens up windows of intrigue shut tight to those who are kept in the dark. But sometimes knowledge limits our real experience of life. Klosterman analogizes this point to the experience of being a wolf. Wolves are "more engaged with the experience of being alive" because the wolf's cognitive limitations make the world a more confusing and constantly surprising place. Not knowing produces a sort of eustress in the body, a physical sensation that makes us feel truly alive, excited, and engaged. If we know too much, there is less opportunity for those mysterious, dynamic moments that we thrive upon to occur. 

Klosterman is no stranger to the media and its pervasive nature - nor does he try to avoid it. His observations on the extent of this permeation, however, are pretty spot on. Especially when it comes to the laugh track. We're socialized to laugh at things when we hear laughter because of TV sitcoms - not necessarily because we find something to be particularly funny. In examining modern TV hits that avoid the laugh track in lieu of the reality TV show feel (such as The Office and 30 Rock), Klosterman recognizes these laugh track-less shows as multidimensional in that they allow audiences to decide for themselves what is funny and appeal to irony in ways a laugh track never could. Ultimately he thinks the laugh track is a crutch for a self-conscious society composed of individuals who aren't confident enough in their own senses of humor. But he thinks that this particular social problem is a product of the pervasive laugh track which has become a prompt for canned laughter and mundane humor. Being the wife of a stand-up comedian, this one was cause for plenty of further consideration. How much easier is it to laugh at something that you find funny when everyone else in the room is laughing too? How can a single comedian appeal to hundreds of fans of comedy at once, fans with distinct and separate tastes in humor? I think some of this can be linked back to the laugh track and its role in shaping our sense of what's funny and its crippling role in our comedic confidence.

There's plenty more within Eating the Dinosaur that calls for discussion, sharing, and further questioning.  I think that learning should always be fun and that's exactly what a Chuck Klosterman book is for me: an entertaining learning experience. I always finish the book more knowledgeable and in a better mood than I started. And what more could you really ask for when reading?

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