There are some books that are supposed to be the definitive word on the subject right out of the gate. They define a topic and then create an iron clad thesis around themselves daring all to dare try to assail their academic Super-Alloy Z fortress. Other books present an idea and then open it up for further discussion with the material presented within being a catalyst for a new perspective. Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People is more in the second category than the first.
The book looks into what has makes the modern nerd both internally and externally. That means everything from the historical forces that turned the intellectual and social outcasts of the past into the modern dweeb, the simple etymology of the word nerd, to the personal forces that determine one is a nerd as opposed to any other label one could be thrown under in life. There is also an examination of the various factions of nerdery that exists today as well as some personal memoirs to give things an authentic weight.
Since Benjamin Nugent confesses to at one time be a fairly heavy computer and D&D nerd that is where a good deal of the in-depth analysis lies. There is also a bit of focus of SCA and science fiction geeks as well. Because this is still the Reverse Thieves blog and not the All Geeks Considered website I must mention that while Japanese otaku and American anime fans come up they are more footnotes than anything else. There is a small chapter about the author going to an Anime con and a bit on yaoi they are more just casual mentions. It is called American Nerd so it mostly focuses on American based nerdy pastimes. Self hating American anime fans can read all they wish into that.
But speaking of self hating nerds they is a details look at both the classic jocks vs. nerds battle as well as the self loathing that geek heap upon themselves. It is a fascinating look into how the nerd deals with opposition just as fierce from within as from without.
The book is hardly perfect. For as many geek cliques as the book examines it leaves out twice as many. And those groups it does cover are hardly done in any depth. Also I would have been very curious for him to examine the fact that the most savage enemies of nerds are often other nerds from different camps. The old Geek Social Hierarchy Chart sums that up better than I ever could. Heck I have had 4 conversations recently about how the once united kingdoms of fantasy and sci-fi have grown into separate armies with a great deal of animosity between them. And most of all I just disagree with some of the conclusions he proposes. Some of his links to racial and religious prejudices in the past to nerdy prejudices in the present seem suspect.
But in the end it is all forgivable because this is not supposed to be Tablets of Stone from Mount Sinai of Nerdom (or should I say Tablets of Mythril from Mount Gundabad.) It is supposed to get your brain to think about nerds beyond the normal jocks vs. nerds hierarchy. In that regard I think it succeeds for both people who know nerds and those who are neck-deep as well. And that is reason enough to give the book a once over.
Picked up American Nerd randomly because the name caught my eye. It is part memoir, part theory, part discussion starter about the origin and lifestyles of nerds in the U.S. It touches on everything from where the word “nerd” may have started and how it became part of the vernacular; to the divide between emotional thought and rational thought; to observations of various nerd events.
One section I really enjoyed was about the situational nerds who are pushed into the nerd category because of that grand social hierarchy where someone must be on the outside. But many of these people don’t have the traditional personality types of nerds. This resonated with me personally.
He has quite a few bits about anime culture though you could tell that he wasn’t all that familiar with it on a one to one scale as he was with something like D&D. Some of the more interesting bits were about observing how Asians had become synonymous with nerds on a few levels. He also talked about the link between Japanese culture and nerdom starting with cyber punk and technology in the early 80s. I realized that though the links between nerds and Japan have changed over the years (less to do with sci-fi for example), that association of Japan as a geek paradise is still there. You see this in news reports as well as anime fandom.
I enjoyed the book and I didn’t feel like he was putting forth his ideas as the gospel. There were parts that struck me as odd like the section about polygamists, but overall I found a lot of interesting discussions can come out of this book. Especially if you are a nerd.