Friday, July 2, 2010

American Nerd

American Nerd: the Story of my People
© 2008 Benjamin Nugent
224 pages

First in my class here at M.I.T /
Got skills, I'm a champion at D&D
M.C. Escher, that's my favorite  MC
Keep your forty, I'll just have an Earl Grey Tea
My rims never spin, to the contrary
You'll find that they're quite stationary 
All of my action figures are cherry,
Stephen Hawkings' in my library
Look at me, I'm white and nerdy. 
("White and Nerdy", Weird Al)

My local library's web catalogue offered American Nerd as a result when I searched for titles in popular science, and the premise -- a book on nerd culture -- hooked me immediately. Author Benjamin Nugent is an ex-nerd, who as boy grew up "boffing" and playing long rounds of Dungeons and Dragons when he wasn't busy with an NES system.  After opening with an analysis of Wikipedia's definition for nerd, Nugent gives a brief history of nerd-types, beginning with the characters of Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein. The most general characteristic of Nugent's nerds is that they prefer worlds of rationality to physical or sensual stimulation, and that they are out of place in a post-industrial revolution world that increasingly associates reason and rationality with  machinery, not humanity -- humanity being represented by emotion and romanticism. Other elements branch from this, as with a preference for Standard English over language replete with slang.

From there, Nugent devotes chapters to individual elements in the "nerdy" spectrum: the old-fashioned Steve Urkel types, the Renaissance Faire enthusiasts, video gamers, 'hackers', anime buffs,  science fiction or fantasy fiction fans, and those who pretend to be nerds to be seen as controversial and nonconformist.There are also "case studies" in which Nugent focuses on his childhood friends; the most memorable case study was that of a refuge from Mormonism, who saw the rule-governed world of Dungeons and Dragons as a redoubt against his mother's violent and unpredictable religiosity.

It's an interesting book, best received by confused parents and loved ones of nerds who don't particularly understand why their child or friend likes dressing up as a feudal knight, spending hours at a time exploring 'dungeons' on paper occupied by figurines, or animatedly discussing competing operating systems. Nugent's approach strikes me as casual, cavalier -- and sometimes careless. He identifies a passage from a forum as being a prime example of "leet speak", for instance, but the passage in question only contains one word (pwn) associated with "leet speak". The rest is the kind of butchered English associated with twelve-year olds using instant messaging for the first time, more accurately known as "AOLspeak". In another instance, he characterizes The Big Bang Theory as two nerds' quest to win the heart of a girl, isn't.

Fairly entertaining and a little sloppy, but it may be of use to someone who wants to understand the nerds in their midst.

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