[28 April 2011]
Why do the terms ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’, for many, conjure up images of Steve Urkel, thick glasses held together with tape, and pocket protectors? Blame Washington Irving.
In chapter three of Nerds: How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies, and Trekkies Can Save America and Why They Might Be Our Last Hope, David Anderegg explains how the nerd/geek dilemma is, in fact, at least partially Washington Irving’s fault. Of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a contributing factor, but Irving was the first “culprit”. This chapter, subtitled “Why Ichabod Crane Will Never Get Laid” succinctly summarizes “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and concludes: “But apparently everyone enthusiastically embraces ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ which teaches the lesson that reading is stupid and teachers are ridiculous, unappealing, self-deluded bores”.
How does Ralph Waldo Emerson fit it? “The American Scholar”, which Emerson delivered in 1837, gives, according to Anderegg, “voice in the loftiest academic diction to a repeated theme in American history: that Americans are, first and foremost, men of action, not men of reflection”.
Some of Anderegg’s conclusions may seem a little unusual, but ideas like “It seems that books are okay after all, in the way that boiled grass and shoe broth are okay as nutrition. So much for American scholarship” are just so wittily put, sometimes it doesn’t matter if I don’t quite agree with all of Anderegg’s points.
Anderegg’s book is perhaps more fun than it should be. After all, Nerds includes plenty of tales of youngsters being picked on or bullied. It tells the story of poor Marty, a “cute fourth-grader with lots of friends” until she gets glasses. Suddenly everyone is calling her a nerd, and she’s faking illness to stay home from school. Anderegg has important points to make—he’s asking people “to examine prejudices”, and he maintains that “American anti-intellectualism has been going on for so long that people think of it as part of the American landscape, as immutable as the purple mountains’ majesty.” Neither thought seems particularly humorous.
Despite this significant, and sometimes sobering message, it’s hard not to chuckle at Anderegg’s language, titles, and examples. Chapter titles “The Field Guide to Nerds” and “The Seinfeld Axiom or Why Nerds Know Advanced Calculus but Can’t Get to First Base” seem designed to elicit a smile. As an adult, the t-shirts that state “You know you’re a geek” when “you have endless debates on who was a better captain, Kirk or Picard” and “You’ve waited months to see the latest comic-book movie adaptation just so you can tell everyone how ‘it sucks compared to the comic’” can seem a little humorous, particularly when you have (as I have) gotten in heated debates about the various casts of Star Trek and can make the “weird two-finger V thing”.
But that’s another point Anderegg makes: 20-somethings (and 40-somethings) tend to see geekdom very differently than 12-year-olds do. In fact, Anderegg states “I love ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ It is a wonderful story for adults. For priceless satire, you can’t beat the description of Ichabod imagining every one of old Van Tassel’s turkeys and geese in its already cooked form. But adults don’t read it in America; we give it to kids to read.”
This is also major point in the book: the power of pop culture. From “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (both text and film versions) and Superman to The Big Bang Theory and Beauty and the Geek, Anderegg spends a great deal of time examining pop culture and analyzing its influence. He also looks at video games, parent-child relationships, the differences between geeks and nerds, and the age old jock versus geek debate. All to illustrate “what this book is about: how kids learn the complicated constructs ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’”.
The book certainly accomplishes this and goes one step further by discussing how to protect a nerdy/geeky child. The book ends with parenting tips including: “Turn off the brainwashers” (i.e., have kids watch “those forensic scientist shows…Those hot people in the white coats are, after all, forensic scientists”) and “Find a subculture…Scouting, chess clubs, and especially music lessons or ensembles are great havens for nerd-labeled kids…”
Anderegg also calls for cultural change and suggests “keep[ing] Ichabod Crane out of school” and “Mak[ing] stereotyping shameful”.
Again, Anderegg does a fine job of explaining “the complicated constructs ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’”; what might be a little lacking is support for the absolutely fantastic title Nerds: How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies, and Trekkies Can Save America and Why They Might Be Our Last Hope. Anderegg does note that “Time magazine’s list of best inventions for the year 2006 includes the following: a robot that can rescue wounded soldiers…a power saw that features a sensor that can detect an impending collision with human flesh…a scanner that can detect blood-alcohol levels by scanning the surface of the skin; and Youtube…” Clearly, these inventions all relate to one of the sciences. Still, at times, the book doesn’t quite live up to this wonderful title.
Of course, only so much can be accomplished in 300 pages of readable and engaging text. And Anderegg does accomplish a great deal and reminds us all that: “The world is not made up of healthy, sexy, good, pops and jocks and sick, pathetic, bad nerds and geeks. We all have moments, or hours, or years of nerdiness inside…”