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.

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