Summer Reading: American Nerd: The Story Of My People

As all of you are preparing for the “summer of George” out there in the field, I thought I’d recommend this new book that I just bought:

AMERICAN NERD: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent.

Book Hardcover
240 pages
Item Number: 056916
Publisher: Scribner/Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: May, 2008

Blurb: For many kids and former kids, it’s no honor to be called a nerd. The image it evokes—thick horn-rimmed glasses, pocket protector, ill-fitting pants—is one of scorn. But as Benjamin Nugent shows in American Nerd, nerdiness has a rich culture and history, worth celebrating by nerd and non-nerd alike.

In his book’s first section, “A History of the Nerd,” Nugent identifies two classes of nerds. The first, disproportionately male, is distinguished by a set of characteristics that includes being passionate about some technically sophisticated activity, avoiding confrontation, and enjoying machines more than others. The second class of nerd, equally male and female, is marked by social exclusion.

We learn that nerds have existed for at least 200 years and see how the evolving archetype of the daring and muscular American sportsman in the 19th century set the stage for its oppositethe nerd. Mary Shelley may have stereotyped nerds as sinister in the guise of Dr. Frankenstein, but Hugo Gernsbackeditor of Amazing Stories—gave nerds the sci-fi genre as a milieu to call their own. The nerd stereotype had fully crystallized by the 1960s; afterward, it became a mainstay of popular culture from Revenge of the Nerds to Steve Urkel to Elvis Costello and beyond.

The book’s next section, “Among the Nerds,” assesses various manifestations of nerdiness in American society. Nugent traces the exploits of members of the debating team at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C. (He dubs debating a “nerdy activity.”) We assess the extent to which the hipster subculture was inspired by nerds, and discover that Asperger’s syndrome occurs “more often in regions where there are large numbers of computer programmers, which is to say regions where there are large numbers of nerds.” We also visit a science fiction convention and ponder the impact of role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. A concluding section establishes Nugent’s own credentials as a nerd.

Engagingly quirky, American Nerd offers keen insight into a set of subcultures with many unexpected dimensions.