Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

June 12, 2008

American Nerd: A Review

Filed under: books, culture, history — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:53 am

I finished up reading “American Nerd: The Story of My People” by Benjamin Nugent.  I first heard about book when Rachel Maddow interviewed the author on radio show.  The book was a good example of intellectual candy.  It was an enjoyable read.  There are a few interesting tidbits here and there.  Although, on the whole, it didn’t feel very nutritious.

The book is, perhaps unsurprisingly, about nerds.  What are nerds?  What is perception of nerds in the society?  How did nerds come to be viewed this way?  What does a nerd hope and dream about that may be different from other people?

To begin with, Nugent traces through some threads of anti-intellectualism in America.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that American anti-intellectualism appears to have its roots tied indirectly to racism and xenophobic fears.  The prototypical nerd is based off of a hard-working, immigrant Jews and Asians, so called “grinds” or “greasy grinds,” who perceived their best chance at advancement in society as being linked to education.  It is actually a testimony to the remarkable success of the immigrants that institutions within the society had to take measures to move the goal posts.  Intellectual achievement could no longer be the determining factor, other characteristics like nobility and hardiness were lauded.  Like any remarkably successful group that challenges existing power, the “grinds” were consequently demonized.

Nugent looks at some of the popular culture portrayals of nerds and nerd culture as well, focusing on the escapism and rule-based aspects, including hyper-whiteness traits, such as mispronouncing words that had obviously only been read, and not spoken aloud to a knowledgeable audience.

Nugent progresses to his personal life, examines some people he grew up with and looked at why they embraced nerdiness.

Nugent mentions Revenge of the Nerds multiple times.  So, I am sort of surprised he didn’t incorporate the main theme of that movie into the book.  Nearly everyone struggles with trying to be accepted, especially in middle school and high school.  Everyone has dramas and crises going on in their life at any given moment.  Nerds are a group that deals with that alienation in a particular way, and maybe that is worth exploring, but it behooves you to mention that the problem isn’t unique to just nerds.  The problem faces everyone.  Everyone feels alienated at one time or another.  This is the prime Nixonian political calculation, there are always a lot more losers than winners.  If you get the losers to band together, you can just ride their antipathy towards the perceived winners to power.

It is hard to bemoan the plight of being a nerd.  Even the self-described ones such as Nugent is doing so well he is getting books published.  His best friend Kenneth was a video game testing lead/program manager.   Self-loathing is a problem, but the big problem with that there is no measure of perspective.  Maybe high school sucks and girls don’t like you.  Is that worse than getting your arm blown off by a bomblet in Cambodia or Laos, or being deformed by Agent Orange in Vietnam?  Intelligence is a gift, even if you find yourself alienated, or depressed.  Maybe one would never miss it, but it doesn’t mean humanity wouldn’t be poorer from the difference.

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