Monday, November 17, 2008
monday book review: american nerd, by benjamin nugent
In American Nerd: The Story of My People, Benjamin Nugent, critically acclaimed writer, journalist, and self-proclaimed nerd, sets out to do something I’m not entirely sure has ever before been attempted – trace the history and unique characteristics of a particular subculture of people: the nerd.

Dividing his book into what is essentially two parts, Nugent first attempts to define nerdiness. He begins by challenging the standard definition of a nerd as “somebody who pursues intellectual interests at the expense of skills that are useful in social settings such as communication, fashion or physical fitness,” claiming that “nerdiness isn’t really a matter of intellectualism and social awkwardness,” but rather determined by two things: the first, being the extent to which the suspected nerd reminds one of a machine, and the second being a nerd “by sheer force of social exclusion.” He then provides a brief history of the nerd, delving into such early manifestations as Dr. Frankenstein, Mary Bennet (of Pride and Prejudice fame), and the rise of the greasy grind, or greaser. Nugent then traces Hollywood’s impact through Jerry Lewis’s character of The Nutty Professor and Bill Murray and Gilda Radner’s “Todd and Lisa” sketches from the early days of Saturday Night Live, to a more realistic depiction of the nerd in Paul Feig’s sadly short-lived television series Freaks and Geeks.

In the second half, titled “Among the Nerds”, Nugent attempts several case studies of the modern nerd, examining sub sects such as Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts, debate teamers, the relatively cool ‘hipster’ nerd, sci-fi and fantasy fans, convention devotees, computer programmers, engineers, and Renaissance faire goers. He even delves into the impact of racism on our cultural definition, as well as exploring the connection between Asperger's Syndrome and nerdiness. This second half is also where Nugent tends to view the subject through the lens of his own personal history, sharing stories of his own nerdy childhood, as well as his recollections of several early nerd friends.

What first struck me about  American Nerd was that it wasn’t exactly what I had expected, in that I expected it to be funny. Despite what the blurbs claim, American Nerd is not a funny book. Sure, there’s the occasional humorous line, but Nugent remains fairly serious about his subject matter, and some of his personal stories are downright poignant. And although I was expecting humor, I would have happily rolled with it had I not started to notice a more pressing problem: the lack of a clear thesis (or, at least, evidence to adequately support said thesis). Aside from earlier chapters, his 'research' consists mostly of anecdotes from his real life, which would be fine, I guess, if he weren't attempting to tackle the entirety of nerd history and culture. Furthermore, and not to be hyper-critical, but it wasn’t particularly well-edited, which is sort of inexcusable for a book on nerdiness if you really think about it.

Ultimately, American Nerd felt annoyingly disjointed to me. It was as if Nugent couldn't decide what he wanted his book to be, exactly.  What began as a history of nerds later turned into a memoir of sorts, and at times almost a confessional where he attempts some sort of penance for the ills he inflicted on his former nerd friends by trading them in for some semblance of hipster nerd cred. Where I really wanted to like this book, I found myself merely tolerating it. Like a nerd lacking a socially agreed-upon set of social niceties, American Nerd left me a bit cold.

Benjamin Nugent
2008, 224 pages

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