Books

Here There Be Dragons

John G. Nettles

Jesse Gilmour’s journey through late adolescence may have been an ass-over-teakettle tumble toward the gaping maw of teenage oblivion, but at least he wasn’t a nerd. In our postmodern age of (slowly) growing tolerance for all races, ethnicities, religions, and various orientations, nerds -- our catch-all term for the cerebrally gifted but socially awkward, with their furtive cliquishness and retreats into realms of various forms of fantasy -- remain a heavily marginalized subset of society, even as we’ve evolved into a global technocracy largely through their efforts. As author Benjamin Nugent puts it, Bill Gates is the wealthiest man on Earth and he’s still considered a loser.

Nugent attempts a hard critical look at nerd culture, its evolution and various permutations, in his new book American Nerd: The Story of My People (Simon & Schuster, 2008). Describing himself as a former nerd who grew out of it, but asserting that his view is non-judgmental, Nugent offers up several examples of the nerd as a character in classic literature -- Victor Frankenstein, Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice -- the objects of derision because of their willful separation from healthier human passions. He then traces the archetypal chasm between nerds and jocks that occurred with the growth of “Muscular Christianity,” the Teddy Roosevelt-era doctrine that God’s men are athletes and adventurers and empire-builders, not bookish intellectuals with a disdain for direct sunlight.

The rest of the book is a seemingly random series of glimpses into various nerd subcultures. Here is a chapter on the activities of the Society for Creative Anachronism, whose members recreate the structures and artisanship of medieval feudalism (but not the plagues and infant mortality rates). Here is a look at the Church of All Worlds, a philosophical mashup of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein that espouses polyamory. Here is a videogaming convention that demonstrates a stark difference between the communal bonds of Halo 2 players and those who play Super Smash Bros. Melee. Here is a meeting of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, divided between aging old-school sci-fi readers and young otakus too busy gaming to read.

Interspersed with these chapters are Nugent’s sociological observations that parallel nerd culture -- with its emphases on bookishness and machinelike behavior -- with similar traits in Jewish and Asian cultures, and that posit an overlap between the seeming dysfunctionalism of nerds with that of people with Asperger’s Syndrome (note: as the parent of an autistic-spectrum child I emphasize the word “seeming”). In still another chapter, Nugent examines the assimilation of typical nerd traits (disaffectedness, an obsession with cultural minutiae) into the hipster profile (who bought all those “Vote for Pedro” ringer tees?). And he brings it home with autobiographical peeks into his own childhood and the extremely unhappy homes that drove him and his friends into the relatively safe world of Dungeons & Dragons.

With his scattershot approach Nugent tries to take what is, in fact, an incredibly complex topic (I can think of at least five major nerd subcultures he neglects here) and boil it down to a Unified Field Theory of Geekdom. In this he is largely unsuccessful, but what he does manage is a sort of apologia, an attempt at least to open up this traditionally airtight social ghetto. He may claim to have rejected nerd culture but he clearly still has sympathy and affection for it, and if anyone could use sympathy and affection, it’s nerds.

Originally published at Flagpole.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image