What's in a nerd? Plenty.
Author Benjamin Nugent shines a light on a widely mocked subculture.
The photos on the jacket of American Nerd: The Story of My People (a pocket protector, clunky eyeglasses, Dungeons & Dragons dice, a calculator, a comic book) quickly give away its topic. If youâ€™ve attended an American high school within the past 50 years, you know where this is going: to the chemistry lab, the library, or band practice. Anyplace, in fact, but the gym.
With a lot of wonky charm and plenty of postgraduate-level analysis, Benjamin Nugent shines light on a widely mocked subculture that still manages to churn out billionaires by the boatload. â€śI will take a serious approach to a subject usually treated lightly, which is the nerdy thing to do,â€ť Nugent writes.
The word â€śnerdâ€ť is fairly new, appearing only around mid-century as lingo for a â€śdrip or a square.â€ť But the concept has been around for centuries. Nugent finds classic nerds â€“ more comfortable with concepts and calculations than emotions â€“ in â€śPride and Prejudice,â€ť â€śHowardâ€™s Endâ€ť and P.G. Wodehouse.
But itâ€™s one Victor Frankenstein whoâ€™s the best early example. Like others of his ilk, Dr. Frankenstein is enraptured by scientific pursuits but has no real understanding of how ordinary people work â€“ or what life might mean to his misshapen creation.
Many nerds realize their handicaps but canâ€™t change them. The â€śpathos of being a nerd,â€ť Nugent writes, is that they feel robbed of â€śspontaneous feelings, of romance, of nonrational connection to other people.â€ť
Nugent is a keen observer and complements his deep analysis with fascinating diversions into the worlds of pop culture and academia. He tracks different types of nerds, drops by a top debating team, explores how society has viewed both Jews and nerds as passionless, and checks in with a black high-school classmate who ignored stereotypes about nerddom and African-Americans.
American Nerdâ€ť is a short book, just 224 pages, and readers will be left wondering about other nerd topics. What special challenges do female nerds face? Whatâ€™s nerd love like? Are nerds more likely to end up alone than other people? Perhaps Nugent will tackle these issues in another book.
Nerds, after all, love sequels.