American Nerd & Culture

Earlier today, while browsing through Slash-dot, I came across what looks to be a facinating book entitled American Nerd: The Story of My People, by Benjamin Nugent. As the title suggests, the book is about the nerd/geek culture, looking back over its history in popular culture. Checking up on the publisher’s website, I found the description blurb:

Most people know a nerd when they see one but can’t define just what a nerd is. American Nerd: The Story of My People gives us the history of the concept of nerdiness and of the subcultures we consider nerdy. What makes Dr. Frankenstein the archetypal nerd? Where did the modern jock come from? When and how did being a self-described nerd become trendy? As the nerd emerged, vaguely formed, in the nineteenth century, and popped up again and again in college humor journals and sketch comedy, our culture obsessed over the designation.

Mixing research and reportage with autobiography, critically acclaimed writer Benjamin Nugent embarks on a fact-finding mission of the most entertaining variety. He seeks the best definition of nerd and illuminates the common ground between nerd subcultures that might seem unrelated: high-school debate team kids and ham radio enthusiasts, medieval reenactors and pro-circuit Halo players. Why do the same people who like to work with computers also enjoy playing Dungeons & Dragons? How are those activities similar? This clever, enlightening book will appeal to the nerd (and antinerd) that lives inside all of us.

Followup poking around found some articles on NPR, On Point and the New York Times, all of which had some interesting things to say about the book, but also some of the cultural differences that help to spring this argument.

Nerds, it is explained, are a type of stereotype of a small group of any given population where logic, knowledge and to some extent, social awkwardness are the key defining features of a person. That doubtlessly doesn’t need to be explained to anybody, for who can forget about that kid in High School? From what I’ve been able to glean, Nugent looks to a number of areas to find out where this perception comes from – literature, history, society, and from listening to a couple of interviews and similar articles, he hits the nail right on the head, and provides some really interesting examples of where this comes from.

I’ve long identified myself as a geek, and I’m always remembering that I had a comparatively easy time in high school. I had the glasses, social awkwardness, nose in a book and a huge interest in a lot of my school work. This isn’t to say that I was a stellar student, but when I was interested in something, I went after it. For me, a defining feature of geekdom is something that a roommate of mine said in England: “I’m jealous of you – you have a real passion for what you’re interested in – that’s something that I don’t have.” Something that I’ve long identified with people who tend to be more geeky/nerdy is that there is an intense passion for detail with whatever interests them. In the 501st, that tends to be costuming accuracy, with some PhDs that I know, that tends towards historical accuracy, completion. Film and music nerds collect or at least know about everything that a particular artist or director releases. As the saying goes, Knowledge is power, and there’s certainly good argument for that, when you have people like Bill Gates being one of the most important innovators in the world today, from the simple roots of building his own computers.

There’s a whole gamut of activities that define geeks – Dungeons and Dragons, space, Science Fiction magazines, comic books, and so on. What’s interesting to me here is that (as the book recognizes), geekdom and nerd culture has become much more popular in the past couple of years. I noticed it at camp when one of the classes that I taught, fantasy gaming, filled up very quickly by the same group of kids who lugged around Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars books and action figures wherever they went. Since then, I’ve noticed the same thing – geeks are ‘cool’ now, or at least the expected appearance of a nerd is.

To some extent, pop culture is responsible. Commercial juggernauts such as LOST, Heroes, Harry Potter, Spiderman and any number of other genre-related media items certainly haven’t hurt, and most likely, have helped this subculture along nicely. The books and films can be among some of the most creative and thought provoking works out there. Indeed, on the occasions that I’ve been out in armor for the 501st, ridicule is overwhelmed by awe and fascination from bystanders. People are fascinated that I’ve put together my own armor, and the times when people make fun of me are fewer and farther between. That doesn’t stop some of our members from experiencing major problems, such as assault, which does happen on occasion.

Still, I don’t believe that popular culture picking up geek culture is totally responsible for its growing acceptance. Not all nerds are interested in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and its certainly not a defining feature of the group. Rather, I think that its the degree to which people like me can obsess and escape to things that are presented in science fiction and fantasy that makes the genre so appealing, as it pulls from a number of intellectual levels with made up languages, obscure sciences, literary items and practical craftsmanship.

Furthermore, I have to wonder if these traits – the desire for knowledge, social awkwardness and logic – are becoming more acceptable in and of themselves in a digital age. Certainly, geeks and nerds were at the forefront of the computer revolution because of its complexity, but from my experiences, the internet nullifies some of the barriers that make geeks more socially awkward – for this reason, it would seem, games such as Second Life or World of Warcraft are very popular (monster-slaying reasons aside) as people can vicariously live through their characters and open up a bit more without being self conscious.

Nerds are certainly here to stay, and from all indications, will become far more hip as popular culture allows, and as the traits that define us become more needed and desired, something that I can easily see happening as the internet becomes more inclusive. In the meantime, I’m going to buy that book.

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2 thoughts on “American Nerd & Culture

  1. Wow, great, thanks… two books in a row that I now need to go get my hands on. :P This nerd culture one sounds depressingly like some of the stuff I had once dreamed of turning into a doctoral dissertation, though not SO overwhelming as to make me think I should rule out that possibility, haha. It sounds like a great book, as does “Thirteen.” I’ve got one more book on my stack that I really want to make sure I’m far enough into that I won’t be distracted before I start buying more books, but these will definitely be on the list!

  2. It’s certainly something that I want to pursue more on an academic level, because I see popular culture as a vastly important aspect of American culture. I know that this subject is something that I’ll touch on when I get to my capstone paper.
    Hopefully I’ll have a couple more recommendations soon!

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