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Book Review

An enlightening study of nerd history

Benjamin Nugent blends memoir and reportage. Benjamin Nugent blends memoir and reportage. (Kathryn mauger)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin O'Kelly
June 25, 2008

American Nerd: The Story of My People
By Benjamin Nugent
Scribner, 224 pp., $20

Of the myriad changes that occurred in American society in the late 20th century, perhaps none was so surprising and subtle as the shift toward partial acceptance - and even occasional celebration - of the American nerd.

From the late 19th century onward, it was more or less accepted that the ideal purpose of American education and parenting was to produce athletic, popular young men and women, the sort who end up in business, law, or politics. But sometime during the 1980s it began to be a lot harder to dismiss the awkward kids with thick glasses, obsessive interests, and no social skills. Sure, life was still rough for those kids, but they were learning they weren't alone, thanks to TV shows like "Square Pegs" and movies like "Sixteen Candles." As computers began to play a larger role in business, education, and life in general, the former class presidents were learning that the former class geeks held everyone's future in their hands. Soon one nerd (Alan Greenspan) was running the economy, another nerd (Al Gore) was running for president, and two unbelievably rich nerds (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs) were changing the ways a lot of us lived and worked.

Blending social history, memoir, and reportage, recovering nerd Benjamin Nugent takes on a tour of the world of "my people," who they are, and how they came to be. As the 19th-century educational movement alluded to above became pervasive in the nation's schools (a movement perhaps best summarized by Groton headmaster Endicott Peabody's remark "I'm not sure I like boys who think too much"), it was all too obvious that there were plenty of young men who would never fit the mold. "American Nerd" is in large part the story of how these young men (and later women) found subcultures where they did fit in. Nugent deftly recounts the origins of science fiction fan conferences, distills ham radio and Dungeons & Dragons to their essentials, and traces the notion of the nerd from the coining of the word, by Dr. Seuss, to the debut (in all their icky splendor) of Todd DiLamuca and Lisa Loopner, the quintessential TV nerds played by Bill Murray and Gilda Radner on "Saturday Night Live."

All this discussion of the emergence of the nerd leads us to the question: What makes a nerd a nerd? Trouble reading social situations and indirect communication, and lack of physical prowess are two of the defining characteristics that Nugent refers to throughout. Two other traits - obsessive interests and comfort with rules - arise as refuges from the loneliness and unease caused by the first two, he writes.

The passages in which Nugent reduces nerds to their essence (and the obligatory chapter on nerds and Asperger's syndrome) will provoke winces of self-recognition in a lot of readers, which is why this book is at its best when Nugent makes everything personal. As he recounts them, the author's childhood and adolescence were a series of humiliations. He even writes that his parents hired a physical therapist to teach him to ride a bike without training wheels. If he's coming clean about that, imagine what he's not telling us.

But the personal element goes beyond memoir. Nugent's visit to the aging nerds at the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society is touchingly elegiac, and by the time I finished the chapter on the Society for Creative Anachronism, I found myself taking the society and its members seriously.

"American Nerd" is far from flawless, however. The chapter on "cool nerds" added little to the book, nor did the brief passage in which Nugent visits a polyamorous household. And the complete absence of a substantial discussion of Simpsons characters (Comic Book Guy would just be a starting point) is a serious omission.

Nevertheless, Nugent's exploration of nerddom is well worth reading. Maybe you've got some painful memories of adolescent inadequacy. Perhaps you still feel inadequate. Maybe you've got a kid who spends too much time playing online games or reading manga. "American Nerd" is a book for you.

Kevin O'Kelly is a regular reviewer for the Globe. He has a blog at notesandcomments1.blogspot.com.

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