American Nerd


The Story of My People

By Benjamin Nugent

Scribner. 224 pp. $20


Reviewed by Carole Goldberg


They walk - ungracefully - among us, sporting the accoutrements of their clan: high-water pants, thick-framed glasses, pocket protectors.

We love to mock them - they are, after all, a group not yet declared off-limits by the political-correctness cops.

They are also taking over the world, one computer application at a time.

Nerds, author Benjamin Nugent says in his thoughtful exposition of this segment of society, have been with us for centuries.

In

American Nerd

, this self-described recovering member of the tribe explores its cultural roots and current manifestations, creating an empathetic and illuminating social history and offering poignant personal testimony.

In his opening chapter, Nugent outlines (a nerdy construct) his argument and explains why defining nerdiness as an unfortunate hybrid of brains and social ineptitude is insufficient. He makes a list (more nerdy behavior) and tells us: "I will take a serious approach to a subject usually treated lightly," and then acknowledges, "which is a nerdy thing to do."

For him, the key to people we see as nerds or geeks lies in what he calls their "machinelike" qualities, sometimes marked by intellectualism, sometimes by social awkwardness, often by both.

They shrink from physical or emotional confrontation and find refuge in games such as Dungeons & Dragons, role-playing in groups such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, precise language, logic, reason and cyberworldliness - all ways of engaging that offer the comfort of rules and limit the need to grasp nuance, an ability they sorely lack.

Such people, he informs us, have been around far longer than such familiar pop culture avatars as Jerry Lewis'

Nutty Professor

or the heroes of

Revenge of the Nerds

.

He traces nerdy characters back to Mary Bennet in

Pride and Prejudice

(1813) and Augustus Fink-Nottle in P.G. Wodehouse's

Right Ho, Jeeves

(1934). And he makes the case that nerd-aversion has literary roots in Mary Shelley's classic

Frankenstein

- not in the monster, but in his coldly science-mad maker, Victor.

He also traces loathing of nerds to their early incarnation as scholarly so-called "greasy grinds," denigrated by adherents of "muscular Christianity," who valued physical prowess, courage in battle, athleticism, and other manly attributes.

Nugent links this celebration of physicality to the rise of industrialism, anti-Semitism, and prejudice against Asians. He also finds intriguing overlaps between nerdy behavior and aspects of Asperger's disorder.

His mining of the history of nerds turns up shiny nuggets, such as the influence on nerd solidarity of pulp-fiction publisher Hugo Gernsbach of

Amazing Stories

fame.

But strangely - or perhaps not, because he's venturing into emotional expression - when he writes about debate teams, middle-aged sci-fi fans, medieval-life reenactors, and others in nerd-approved pursuits, the book wanders a bit.

He is more in control exploring the vogue for fake-nerd hipsterism - "The people doing the Quirky Nerd thing cultivate hair that reaches for the heavens," he points out.

Nugent also is on the mark with his reflections on his boyish nerdhood and what became of friends who lived for mock swordfights with weapons made from padded PVC pipes.

Now, in a world eager to pay Geek Squads to fix its computers and ever more involved in cyber-activities, Nugent deserves kudos for explaining how nerds grew from figures of fun to objects of imitation - and wielders of power.

Carole Goldberg is books editor of the Hartford Courant, where this review originally appeared.