I’m a nerd. There’s really no denying this truth. From the roots of my red hair to the tips of my hipster Docs, I. Am. A. Nerd.
And I’m okay with this. I’m not just “okay” with it, actually. I revel in it. There is something liberating about being apart from the masses, liking what you like for reasons other than this popular person or that trendy person approves. It’s no surprise, I’m sure, to hear that I’ve never been all that good at fitting in with others. I’m okay with that, too.
So when I saw a copy of Ben Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People sitting in a remainder bin at the local Borders a while back, I knew this was a book I needed to read. Honestly, though, I assumed from the whimsical cover that it was going to be a funny, self-deprecating memoir in which Mr. Nugent waxed poetic about his nerdy adolescence.
Instead, what I got was a a rather fascinating sociological examination of the history of…the American Nerd (der!), from etymological discourse on the actual word to the earliest appearances of the now widely accepted visual and descriptive caricatures of a “nerd” (think bespectacled with physical weaknesses and antisocial behavior disorder).
The second half of the book is a series of case studies, if you will…discussions on accepted nerd “categories”: D&D nerd, hipster nerd, debate team nerd, etc. Interspersed are vignettes either from Nugent’s own adolescence or from those childhood friends who shared his nerdy penchant. Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that this is the part of the book that will appease those needs for whimsy and fluff.
Honestly, these glimpses into the nerdery of time past are oftentimes bleak and in some instances rather upsetting. The humorous, Falstaffian nerd ideal put forth by movies like Sixteen Candles or Revenge of the Nerds is a false one, indeed. Though one might grow to appreciate and enjoy not fitting in as they get older, truth is it’s quite awkward and unpleasant during those years of soul-scarring adolescence. This is most definitely reflected in this part of the novel.
Final Verdict: I’m hanging on to this one for now. As I mentioned already, I had originally assumed that this would be a light, fluffy read. I was hoping for light and fluffy. What I found instead was a provocative (if slightly biased by his and friends’ experiences) examination of the history of American nerdery. I don’t quite think I was completely up to the task of absorbing such a serious work at this point, but what I was able to absorb impacted me significantly. I believe there is something to be found in a second reading at some point in the future.