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A Need for Nerds

Meta Wagner

Now more than ever, as we stumble along the dark, uncertain path of These Troubled Times, we need our brainiacs to help illuminate the way.

Geek culture is now the apotheosis of artistic expression. Proof is right there in that first sentence. When a writer can get away with using a word like "apotheosis" in a column on pop culture, you know that nerds rule.*

How did we arrive at the point where geeks no longer only influence technology in all its various forms (a natural match), but now also affect the types of books we read and the movies we see (a surprise match)? And why am I blaming this rather bizarre cultural development on President Bush?

In order to answer these and other pressing questions, we must first briefly acknowledge the two people most responsible for making geeks admirable: the two Bills -- Gates and Clinton. The story of Bill Gates -- he of the bad hair, goofy glasses, and high-pitched voice -- has given hope to uncool adolescents everywhere. He personifies the second definition of "geek" on Urban Dictionary: "The people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult."

What an amazing parable: Gates is not only the richest person in the world -- for 12 years running -- he and his wife Melinda got to share the honor with U2's Bono of being named Time magazine's persons of the year in 2005. More importantly, he has influenced each and every one of our lives in ways no one else on the planet can claim. Not bad for a kid who probably received more wedgies at the hands of jocks than Seinfeld's George Costanza (in the overdue library book episode).

And then there's Bill Clinton. Ah, Clinton. He's become so identified with sexual magnetism that we are apt to forget his encyclopedic mind, his policy wonk ways, and those Members Only-type jackets he sometimes wears. But his inherent nerdiness is actually a surprising part of his appeal.

Which brings us to President Bush, the Anti-Nerd. It was reported recently that the former C student who's made a political career of belittling so-called intellectual elitists like Al Gore and John Kerry has had to resort to reading (or at least claiming to read) Albert Camus' The Stranger. Mon dieu! Not only was Camus a French citizen, he was a French intellectual -- the worst kind! I guess with Bush's approval ratings stagnating, even he is trying to board the Nerd Express. But, fast as he may run, he'll never catch up or catch on. Never. Jamais.

And so, as you shall soon see, the Clinton/Bush dichotomy holds the key to why geek-influenced literature and film has taken hold of late.

Nerds inspire confidence like no one else. They're smart. They like to figure out how things work and why they break apart and when they break apart, how they can be put together, again. They care about both the big picture and the smallest of details. They apply laser-like focus to problems. You won't find them wasting time working out when there's more important work to be done (unless they can watch a Quentin Tarantino film while they pedal their exercise bikes). And if, like Clinton and Gates, they also seem to care about people, especially the underdog, then so much the better.

We needed a Geek-in-Chief after 9/11 and during Katrina and we didn't have one. We need a Geek-in-Chief now while the Middle East is in turmoil and we still don't have one.

Maybe at a time when life is so clearly a struggle, so clearly out of our control, and those in charge of our fates are so inadequate to the task, many of us are turning to the comforts that geek culture supplies.

Look at what's happening in literature. Non-fiction is what's happening. Have you noticed how The New York Times Book Review regularly devotes more column inches to non-fiction than to fiction? Literary agencies and publishers are hot for non-fiction manuscripts and lukewarm towards fiction, unless it's by a "name" author or a new author they believe will be the next big name. I've heard people who have read the great works of literature and previously favored fiction say they've pretty much given up on fiction; they now prefer non-fiction.

Non-fiction offers readers the chance to acquire knowledge, to understand how and why historical movements and marketing trends occur, to gain mastery over something -- all geek virtues. Non-fiction tends to provide answers while fiction tends to raise questions. And not just any questions; oftentimes, unanswerable ones. Questions of ethics and existence. The kind of questions that have made Ativan and Ambien our new best friends. In harrowing times, we want answers, not more questions.

Two related genres of non-fiction that illustrate my point are the microhistory and the macrohistory. With the microhistory, publishers are calming readers' frayed nerves by presenting an unwieldy topic through the prism of one small thing, as represented by books like Salt: A World History or The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World or Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea or The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. (The titles alone are worth the price of purchase.)

With the macrohistory, publishers are reducing information anxiety by acknowledging a topic's unwieldiness and letting people know that there's an expert who will tackle it for them. This trend is represented by macrohistories with "everything" in the title, like Freakanomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making us Smarter, and A Short History of Nearly Everything. Geeks to the rescue!

In film, we're seeing not so much a geek way of exploring the world as a celebration of geeks themselves. This summer's movie Wordplay, about a national crossword puzzle championship and the people who are obsessed with crossword puzzles (which, not-so-coincidentally features President Clinton, a crossword lover), is the latest salvo in the "geeks rule" film phenomenon. We've witnessed not just one but three recent releases of movies centered on spelling bee championships: Akeelah and the Bee, Bee Season and Spellbound. Spelling bee fever has even reached Broadway, where the Tony Award-winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues to play to packed audiences. I ask you, what's geekier than crossword puzzles and spelling bees?

I have nothing against these books or films (other than Bee Season, which just befuddled me). It's wonderful that authors have discovered ways of making history lively and engaging. It's fantastic that spelling bee champs and crossword puzzle aficionados are being cast in films as heroic athletes of the mind, and granted the same adoration normally reserved for sports figures.

But, personally, I'm hoping we vote a lot of geeks into office during the mid-term elections and do it again in the next presidential election. Then, geek culture in books and on screen will be a reflection of the times rather than an antidote to it.

* I'm using the terms "geek" and "nerd" interchangeably, despite the subtle differences in meaning.

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