AMERICAN NERD by Benjamin Nugent


The Story of My People
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An amusing and insightful meditation on socially maladroit guys in horn-rimmed glasses.

Journalist, blogger and Dungeons & Dragons veteran Nugent (Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, 2004) delineates the world of the “nerd,” which Newsweek described in 1951 as a Detroit term for “a drip or a square.” Nerds have been exemplified in popular culture, he writes, by the bow-tied scientist Jerry Lewis played in The Nutty Professor, by Bill Murray and Gilda Radner in the Todd and Lisa sketches on Saturday Night Live and by the bullied misfits in the ’80s classic Revenge of the Nerds. In his wide-ranging search for outcasts in the pages of literature and the hallways of high schools, Nugent finds nerds going as far back as Mary Shelley’s emotionally disconnected Victor Frankenstein and the pedantic, graceless Mary Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Often technical experts who are good with things but not with people, nerds can be found in the letters section of science-fiction periodicals, in engineering-school humor magazines and among adolescents who prefer the rule-bound culture of role-playing games to the emotion-charged messiness of real life. Nugent’s description of a 1930s group called the Futurians (members included Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl) will suffice for all: “kids facing serious obstacles toward social acceptance—dental problems; immigrant accents; scrawny, uncomfortable-looking bodies.” The author recalls his own life among nerdy childhood friends and brings us to such diverse nerdy organizations as the Society for Creative Anachronism, whose members painstakingly recreate aspects of life between 600 and 1600 CE, and the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, where all outsiders are always welcome. Unlike his sixth-grade friend Kenneth, who now manages a staff of game testers at a video-game company, Nugent broke long ago with his need for the “wizard/machine feeling” of nerdy activities, he writes. He certainly makes good use of his elf-with-sword days here.

Great fun, whether you’re cool or not.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-7432-8801-9
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Scribner
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2008


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