Supposedly, nerds are now cool. People compete to show their nerd cred. They are joining Facebook, taking nerd tests on the Web, and discussing the definitions of geek and nerd on their blogs. They watch TV shows like "Battlestar Galactica," "Heroes" and "The Big Bang Theory." They read adult comics and mammoth science fiction novels. Even Barack Obama is said to be a nerd. It was not always this way, a topic that Benjamin Nugent explores in "American Nerd: The Story of My People," published earlier this year. I ordered the book after listening to Nugent give an interview on The Sound of Young America podcast about what he called his childhood experiences as a self-loathing nerd. It was poignant (and familiar) to hear him describe dumping his nerdy Dungeons & Dragons friends in high school so he could pass for normal. Unfortunately, the book did not quite live up to that interview, either intellectually or emotionally. (But it was a pleasant diversion from reading more of "Anathem," the giant Neal Stephenson SF novel on my to-do list.)
Let's start with the definition of a nerd. Nugent rejects a Wikipedia definition that focused on social awkwardness. Instead, he describes nerds as "intellectual in ways that strike people as machine-like and socially awkward in ways that strike people as machine-like... people who remind others, sometimes unpleasantly, of machines."
He says they tend to be passionate about technically sophisticated activities and enjoy playing with machines, speak in a language that hews close to standard written English, seek to avoid physical and emotional confrontation, favor logical and rational communication over other types. He also contends there is a second type of nerd, who does not necessarily fit these characteristics but who gets the label out of extreme social exclusion.
The Wikipedia definition has been revised since Nugent's book came out. (Unlike this reviewer, I consider Wikipedia to be authoritative on this topic, since it is written by nerds and geeks for nerds and geeks, hence its impeccable accuracy on topics like comics and computers and other obsessions).
At the moment, Wikipedia says:
Nerd is a term often bearing a derogatory connotation or stereotype, that refers to a person who passionately pursues intellectual activities, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests that are age inappropriate rather than engaging in more social or popular activities. Therefore, a nerd is often excluded from physical activity and considered a loner by peers, or will tend to associate with like-minded people.
(Wikipedia goes with Webster on geek: "a peculiar or otherwise odd person, especially one who is perceived to be overly obsessed with one or more things including those of intellectuality, electronics, gaming, etc".)
The best parts of Nugent's book are the historical-sociological sections. He has some fun with nerd-precursors like a character from "Pride and Prejudice." Victor Frankenstein, and poor Hugo Gernsback, who was born at least a century too early.
Nugent traces the modern nerd archetype from its early origins -- a silly creature in a 1950 Dr. Seuss book, Jerry Lewis's characters, mid-1960s issues of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s student humor magazine, as an epithet for squares on "Happy Days," up to the famous "Saturday Night Live" skits written by Rosie Shuster and Anne Beatts for Gilda Radner and Bill Murray. This was an era before widespread use of personal computers, before the Internet, before fake nerd chic, which Nugent rightly mocks, although he is himself open to the charge that he is not an authentic nerd.
He notes that the original awkward archetype bore some resemblance to stereotypes about Jews and Asians and and was also reminiscent of Asperger's syndrome (then unknown). But he barely touches on the homophobia that often made targets of nerds because they failed to conform to proper sex roles (whatever their actual orientation).
I was in high school when those SNL skits came out in the 1970s, and they had always struck me as a little cruel and off the mark. Words more likely to be in circulation in our part of the country for people like this were dweeb, spaz or dork. I was never cool in high school, but I did not think of myself as a nerd. I read a lot of books, used a lot of big words and spoke in standard English, had spent a lot of time in my early teens on D&D and board war games, was obsessed with Tolkien, dabbled in programming BASIC for the school's PDP 11 mainframe, played on the chess team and had been called a wimp and worse because I refused to fight. I did for a brief period in junior high wear a pocket protector and a calculator on my belt.
Thankfully, the high school cliques of the late 70s were never as strict as they are in movies or TV skits. The more socially agile could slip among different social groups. There were smart jocks and popular nerds. The smart kids with unusual interests learned to hide them when they were hanging around in the field, parking lot or basement drinking beer with the others.
If you had asked, we would have said we were the smart people, surrounded by a lot of not-as-smart people in a brutish anti-intellectual culture ruled by fists, insults, good looks, and rigorous social ostracism. Thirty years of experience only confirm that assessment.
From what I gather, Nugent is younger than I am, so perhaps he had the benefit of living through the revenge-of-the-nerds era of the 1980s and 1990s. Much later, the show "Freaks and Geeks" came along to retroactively soften the adolescent pain with a fresh coat of nostalgia. The Web and computers and other gadgets have also turned the social pecking order upside down, rewarding mental labor in ways that 70s nerds could only dream about. As this story line goes, for the nerds it's a happy ending after all. Aren't we all nerds now? Even the jocks! Is there anything nerdier than fantasy football?
But even if we can all joke about "being a little nerdy" or celebrate a geek love for some oddball topic, there's something a little too precious about nerd pride, even now. As much as I admire the desire to take back the label, maybe this blogger is right: "If being called a nerd doesn't hurt your feelings, then you aren't one... If you think you are a nerd, then you aren't one."
I enjoyed Nugent's book but wished there had been a more in-depth discussion of the social trends at work, a closer look at the differences between nerd and geek, cool and square. The trouble is, there's no real agreement on what these terms really mean, and the meanings shift with each graduating class. It's youth slang, intended to create out-groups and confuse adults. And so the nerd, dork, square and melvin of past generations give way to today's "herb" (defined as "an individual easy to disrespect, take advantage of, and/or violate, usually due to cowardice or the desire to avoid conflict." Sound familiar?)
The second half of Nugent's book turns to personal memoir. As Nugent admitted in that podcast interview, his adolescent crime was to abandon his junior-high D&D friends so he could fit in. It's a common if shallow story. He had lost all touch with the friends he labels nerds and had to find them again to write this book. I wanted to hear more of their voices here, more about their lives now, and what they thought of Nugent turning up to enshrine their nerd histories on ink and paper.
The book has its appeal. Some will carry it around proudly, while others will sneak it home to read in private. "Yeah, I'm kind of nerdy, in the cool way that people admire," some of them might think. "But I'm not one of those big honking pathetic nerds nobody can stand to be around, right? Right?"
If you have to ask...