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“The Nineties” by Chuck Klosterman (Penguin Press)
Few things make a book reviewer feel older than reading a book — words on actual tree pulp, bound together with a hard cover — that ruminates on the essential news events and pop culture milestones that happened when the reviewer was in his 20s.
But such is “The Nineties,” which is subtitled “A Book,” just in case generations after X don’t remember those. And there’s no one more qualified to write it than Chuck Klosterman. Always an astute cultural observer and a fan of deep dives into any subject, Klosterman is focused here on a decade in American life that he says is often portrayed as “a low-risk grunge cartoon.” Or put another way: “The nineties were not an age for the aspirant.
The worst thing you could be was a sellout… (which) meant you needed to be popular, and any explicit desire for approval was enough to prove you were terrible.”
For Americans born between 1966-1981, “The Nineties” is full of “remember that?” moments. There’s nostalgia on every page. Where were you when Al Cowlings drove his buddy O.J. Simpson in a Ford Bronco down the 405 in L.A., rarely exceeding 40 miles per hour? How many times did you “get knocked down” on a dance floor to Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping?” And who can forget the experience of wandering the aisles of Blockbuster, which relied on promotional cardboard boxes to lure viewers, not an algorithm that knows everything you’ve ever watched.
Klosterman’s gift is seizing on those moments that any Gen Xer can readily recall and pulling the strings a bit to put it in some kind of historical perspective. Here’s a great passage about telephones during the decade: “Modern people worry about smartphone addiction, despite the fact that landlines exercised much more control over the owner. If you needed to take an important call, you just had to sit in the living room and wait for it.
There was no other option. If you didn’t know where someone was, you had to wait until that person wanted to be found.”
It’s tempting for readers to interpret the book as just memories of a more innocent, less instant age. But Klosterman does a good job putting everything in its place. “Times change, because that’s what times do,” he writes. The book ends with an essay about September 11, 2001. Before the attacks, there were things happening in the world that you heard about, but they were like “New Yorker stories you didn’t need to finish,” writes Klosterman. When terrorists crashed four planes and killed nearly 3,000 people, writes Klosterman, “the nineties collapsed with the skyscrapers.”