Archive for the ‘Benjamin Nugent’ Category

The pathos of being a nerd is to feel that because you are comfortable with rational thought, you are cut off from the experience of spontaneous feelings, of romance, of non-rational connection to other people.  A nerd is so often self-loathing because he accepts the thinking/feeling rift, and he knows and cares that other people accept it, too.  To be a nerd is often to live with a nagging feeling of one’s own incurable heartlessness. (p. 54)

 American Nerd: A Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent is, as the title might suggest, a brief history of the modern American nerd.  It’s a short book, only 224 pages, and attempts, with varying degrees of success, to chart the rise of the American nerd, to describe the life and habitat of said nerd, and to tie in the author’s own personal history.

I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued by the wealth of literary references within the book.  Right off, Nugent refers to Mary Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Tibby Schlegel (Howard’s End) and, that most devoted newt-lover, Gussie Fink-Nottle (Right Ho, Jeeves).  These three, he claims, are perfect early examples of nerds: they are odd, even to their families, uncomfortable with social convention (such as not being comfortable with small talk) and are far more likely that other characters to say what is on their minds, though it may offend others or make them targets of ridicule.  For me, this was the perfect way to begin, as all three, but Gussie Fink-Nottle in particular, are characters that aroused my empathy when first reading the books. 

Cultural references come fast and furiously, though the Sci-Fi allusions you might expect are scarce: Frankenstein, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, The Jungle Book, Revenge of the Nerds, Rambo II, Conan the Barbarian…the list goes on.  The award for my favourite pop-culture reference has to go to “Freaks and Geeks”, that short-lived but sublime television show that served not so much to stereotype either freaks or geeks but to remind us all (all 10 people who actually watched it, that is) that the default setting for teenagers is social awkwardness. 

So much is covered in this book, but I particularly liked the section on the 19th Century rise of “muscular Christianity”, the idea that the mind as well as the body must be developed in order to promote moral health.  This movement, Nugent argues, helped to further ostracize the nerds, who remained more interested in solitary studies than in group sports.  Slight of body but strong of mind, they are the victims of this mania which the modern education system still embraces, leading to the terror of high school physical education classes.  Another chapter that discusses Asperger’s and autism was also fascinating – the points on the autistic spectrum read as varying degrees of what we view as classic geek behaviour. 

The concluding section of the book described Nugent’s own history as a self-loathing nerd.  While I enjoyed his introduction to the book, giving a glimpse of his own tormented youth, I found this section trying.  Perhaps if he had scattered personal memories throughout the book it would have been more palatable but, as it is, I finished the book with no particular fondness for Nugent and with, in fact, a bit of disdain for him.  He was not so much a dedicated nerd as an angry, scared, mentally-disturbed child.  I felt angry that he tried to use his own, very unique history as a form for what a nerd is.    

This is a book that is all about stereotypes – not destroying them so much as detailing them.  High pants, large glasses, protruding pocket protector – all are badges of honour in an on-going battle.  Unfortunately, the stereotype, the portrait of a nerd that Nugent paints is a very male one: the things that Nugent focuses on (Dungeons and Dragons, Asperger’s, even the debate team) are overwhelmingly male-dominated.  At the beginning of the book, Nugent proposes that there are two types of nerds: “one type, disproportionately male, is intellectual in ways that strike people as machine-like, and socially awkward in ways that strike people as machine-like” (p. 6), “the second type of nerd…is a nerd by sheer force of social exclusion” (p. 7).  This, apparently, is where all the women fall.  They are fan girls, lovers of Manga, and devotees of the Society for Creative Anachronism.  As far as this book is concerned, women are only nerds when they can’t be stereotyped as anything else.  Men earn their nerd-status, proudly braving bullies in the hallways, being laughed at by girls throughout their school years, and knowing more than anyone else.  Eventually, the myth goes, they will conquer the world as surely as those nerd-heroes, Bill Gates and George Lucas, did.  Women, on the other hand, are nerds because they are too weird for anyone else to want to befriend them.  Yes, this is a very personal book for Nugent and, given that he’s male, it’s not surprising that he naturally sees things from a male perspective.  It’s also true that the default nerd stereotype is a male one, but there are female nerds out there and, even more than the males, they confuse the rest of society.  Women are supposed to be social and communicative, negotiators and peace-makers – they are the ones who bend and yield so that things can get done, so that society can function.  But some women don’t fall into that mold – they prefer solitary endeavours, enjoy one-on-one conversations instead of large group settings, would rather think about a topic than discuss it, and, once they have their facts and their opinions, they are no less likely to yield than the most stubborn man.  This is the kind of behaviour that Nugent ascribes to his Type One nerd and yet, the way he presents it, it’s clear that not even he can really imagine the females who would fit this mould. 

There is also no allowance for those nerds who might actually have some functioning social skills.  Even the debaters are view askance, rationalized as actors who assume a socially-competent persona for a brief period in order to gain success.  In general, the lack of tolerance for differences, the inability to admit that there are many shades of grey within any definition of what a nerd is, proved incredibly frustrating.  It’s still an interesting and entertaining read, particularly the first section which draws on historical and literary examples, but certainly not as impressive or note-worthy as I had hoped (and as the buzz surrounding it had led me to expect).

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