Adam Jenkins writes "This book seemed to have potential, particularly since the image of nerds has changed in recent times.
Once objects of derision and schoolyard bullying, nerds are now acknowledged as having a place in society.
The Lord of the Rings became a multi-million dollar movie trilogy, the internet is now used by an incredible number of people,
and computer games are no longer seen as being 'just for kids.' Around the years of the dot-com boom, successful
nerds were driving Ferraris and going to cool parties. So it's not so surprising
that the definition of a nerd has changed over time, nor that a society which has generally become better at accepting
people who are different, has accepted nerds." Read below for the rest of Adam's review.As is clear from the title, American Nerd sets out to concentrate on the American nerd, and to define what a nerd is.
As with a lot of social labels, it's not so easily defined. Nugent defines two categories of nerd; those who are intellectual and socially
awkward in a machine-like way, and also people who are simply socially excluded. We learn that the word 'nerd' first started being used in
America around the 1960s, but as well as the more recent 'geek', there have also been words like 'boffin' and 'greasy grind' which are similar in meaning.
The book is divided into three sections, with the history of the nerd, a more detailed section called "Among the Nerds",
and a shorter section "My Credentials". The latter section expands on the glimpses into Nugent's life through the rest of the book,
like the case study in the second part about Nugent's friend from the Ghetto of Amherst and includes another case study,
about another of his childhood friends.
The author spent some his school years being picked on as a nerd and at the start he discloses that consequently his journalistic objectivity is compromised. Later in the book, he tells us that he stopped being a nerd in his teens. As part of this disclaimer, Nugent states that he empathizes with nerds and anti-nerds alike, and really, who better to do that than an ex-nerd? He seems to have done some good research for the book, including attending the Third Annual Anime Los Angeles Convention, SCA events like Estrella War in Arizona, and talking with Rosie Shuster and Anne Beatts, who wrote the first nerd sketch for Saturday Night Live.
The publishers claim this is the first comprehensive examination of nerds, and it's certainly a fine study of the history to date. No doubt there are good related academic papers in the fields of psychology and sociology, and the books of Professor Sherry Turkle (mentioned in this book) sound interesting, but American Nerd is not only more accessible, but it is specifically about nerds. I've read a couple of books which have touched upon nerd culture, but they have mostly concentrated on other topics; usually the stories of early Silicon Valley pioneers and their companies. Nugent's book covers not only the more usual topics like how nerds are treated at school and what a nerd is, but also science fiction fan clubs and conventions, computer gamers, "fake nerds", Japanese pop culture and parallels between race discrimination and nerds. I was a little surprised that some nerd subcultures weren't included, like those around computer bulletin board systems, or tabletop gaming and live action roleplaying. There were lots of analogies and examples from not only movies like Blade Runner, Rain Man and The Nutty Professor, but also classic literature, like Pride and Prejudice, and Frankenstein. Of more current works, there's mention of Beauty and the Geek and The Big Bang Theory, and some interesting information about the production of Freaks and Geeks.
I'm not sure whether the book would appeal only to nerds or ex-nerds. I think the subject material is probably broad enough that it would have a greater appeal. Parts of the book are quite funny like the story about a Super Smash Bros. Melee competition at a Major League Gaming tournament, and the examples of strange vocabulary adopted by gamers. There are also stories about Ben and his interactions with his friend's crazy Mormon Mum. Toward the end of the book, he described getting drunk with popular kids at age 13 in Petrozavodsk, Russia and deciding he didn't want to be a nerd anymore. There was a lot that I learned from this book, not just the history of nerds, but also something of modern subcultures like yaoi, otaku and SCA, as well as some American specific things like RPIs Bachelor journal and high school debating. Though there's some parallels drawn in this book between the UK and the US in the coverage of "muscular Christianity" around the late 19th century, I am sure that currently nerds in the UK are quite different to those in the US, and I did wonder generally just how nerds in other countries are similar and different to the American variety.
This is an intelligent and thought-provoking book, which also manages to be entertaining. Whether you're a nerd or not, you will find parts of the book that remind you of some of your own experiences and make you appreciate how much richer our society is for having nerds!
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