Book Review: American Nerd by Benjamin Nugent

Author: Benjamin Nugent
Title: American Nerd: The Story of My People
Publication Info: Scribner (2008)
ISBN:  0743288017


The author sets out to write about the history, sociology, anthropology and psychology of the nerd confessing that he is taking “a serious approach to a subject usually treated lightly, which is a nerdy thing to do,” (p. 11).  Early on Nugent defines the nerd:

I believe there are two main categories of nerds: one type, disproportionately male, is intellectual in ways that strike people as machinelike, and socially awkward in ways that strike people as machinelike… p. 8

The second type of nerd probably consists equally of males and females.  This is a nerd who is a nerd by sheer force of social exclusion. p. 9

I would argue with his definition of the first category and the evidence he presents in the book even runs counter to the definition at time.  The second category is such a broad catchall as not really have much meaning.  Nevertheless, Nugent usually sticks to his thesis pretty well and the results are fascinating and informative.

Nugent looks to the history of nerds, finding examples in literature (such as the bookish Mary Bennett of Pride & Prejudice) to show that the type has existed for some time.  He also derives the history of the term nerd from college humor publications to Saturday Night Live.  The history of nerds is one of standing outside of the expected norm.  In late 19th/early 20th Anglo-American history, the expectation was “muscular Christianity” with an emphasis on the man of action over the man of books.  Over time, the qualities associated with nerds have often been the same that have come up in stereotypes of Jewish and Asian immigrants that ran contrary to the white muscular Christianity.

Various chapters focus in on aspects of the nerd subculture including Debate Club, the Society for Creative Anachronism, and nerd chic which Nugent argues isn’t nerdy at all.  Nugent also touches on the parallels between nerds and people with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.

The best parts of this book are autobiographical.  Nugent confesses that he was a nerd until a dramatic makeover halfway through his teens which resulted in abandoning many of his nerdy friends.  For the book, Nugent revisits many of these friends as adults and discusses them as case studies who are both inspiring and heartbreaking.  Nugent uncovers a lot of self-loathing in these parts of the book and at times I found myself agreeing with  him. One of the more interesting observations to come out these discussions is the idea that – unlike in Revenge of the Nerds where we see a cheerful, helpful nerd parent – many real life nerds come unstable family situations.  The nerd child found escape in fantasy and the structure it provided. “It was no coincidence, I think, that we generally came to D&D from home lives that tended toward the unpredictable and confounding.  We wanted a place where you knew where you stood, where everything was laid out so you could see it,” (p. 176).

I found this book interesting because its a topic I’ve never seen written about before and I enjoyed the multi-disciplinary approach but Nugent’s writing style leaves a lot to be desired.

Rating: ***

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