American Nerd: The Story of My People

That’s the title of a great new book by Ben Nugent, a Brooklyn based journalist and critic. If you’re reading this paragraph, and haven’t read the book, you should. It’s one of those rare books that lives up to its cute premise with a consistently interesting, well-executed text.

Nugent includes a well told tour of what goes on among nerds, considered as a cultural group: Science fiction fanclub meetings, video game tournaments, dungeons and dragons, and a decidedly nonstandard attachment to speaking in standard, formal English are among the highlighted traits. But we don’t just learn that these traits are common, we learn the backstory of why and how they each developed and collectively converged to yield the nerd as we know her or, more often, him.

One thread: It turns out the term, which emerged in college humor magazines at places like RPI in the mid-twentieth century, labels an idea deeply tied to the American story of immigration and assimilation: Poverty in the first generation yields a socially tone-deaf striving for material wealth. The stereotype draws on white anxieties about Jews, Asians and other new arrivals.

Another: the borderland between normalcy and autism spectrum disorders is thickly populated by nerds, who are attached to order, formality, explicitness and logic. These traits are, for whatever reason, characteristically male.

To whet your appetite, here’s a favorite paragraph:

But mostly these are not cool boys. Mostly these boys are nerds. This is not to say they have big glasses and high pants. There are some who would have been recognizable as nerds in my high school: XL heavy-metal T-shirt, slump, short, shapeless hair, unconvincing leer. But the outfit of the contemporary video-game nerd is a stab at a hip-hop ensemble. At some point in the legendary gangsta past, the baggy look alluded to the concealment of contraband, but now it’s an attempt to hide the body. It’s the adolescent equivalent of a comb-over, a look that’s designed to cover a structural problem but worsens the whole package because it’s clearly obfuscatory.