three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-American NerdBenjamin Nugent, a former music and film reporter and author of Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, takes on the cultural history of the nerd. Oh, and he’s a Dungeons & Dragons veteran, too.

The Topic: According to Nugent, nerds aren’t exactly robots—but then again, nor are they quite human in their avoidance of emotion and confrontation, preference for stilted English and technical subjects, and trouble in social situations. In this cultural history of the nerd, Nugent (himself a self-described member of the group) follows the evolution of the concept—from its origins in the 19th century to the coining by Dr. Seuss in 1950 and its entrance into mainstream television (think Happy Days and Saturday Night Live). He also traces the backlash against nerds, exemplified by the rise of college football and outdoor sports. Along the way, the author offers insight into nerdiness and racial stereotypes, nerdiness and Asperger’s, and nerdiness and, well, himself—amply illustrated with his own high school humiliations.
Simon & Schuster. 224 pages. $20. ISBN: 0743288017

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"With a lot of wonky charm and plenty of postgraduate-level analysis, Benjamin Nugent shines light on a widely mocked subculture that still manages to churn out billionaires by the boatload. … Nugent is a keen observer and complements his deep analysis with fascinating diversions into the worlds of pop culture and academia." Randy Dotinga

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The passages in which Nugent reduces nerds to their essence (and the obligatory chapter on nerds and Asperger’s syndrome) will provoke winces of self-recognition in a lot of readers, which is why this book is at its best when Nugent makes everything personal. … The chapter on ‘cool nerds’ added little to the book, nor did the brief passage in which Nugent visits a polyamorous household." Kevin O’Kelly

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"He does a smart and sympathetic job of showing how the rules and elaborate procedures of computer programming, ham radio and other nerd pursuits provide the structure and sense of belonging missing from the lives of so many nerds." James F. Sweeney

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The most fascinating parts of the book are those that deal with the interplay between nerdiness and ethnicity. … I take issue with Nugent’s dismissal of hipster nerds as just a bunch of posers who have co-opted nerdiness for their own sake." A. J. Jacobs

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"When Nugent describes his meetings with childhood friends from his nerd peer group, the bloggy tone gives way to precise storytelling. With it comes emotion." Jim Windolf

Critical Summary

Many readers—self-identified nerds or not—will find American Nerd a smart, entertaining cultural history-memoir. Peppered with examples from literature, television, academia, and pop culture, the book successfully portrays a subculture that has been ridiculed, scorned, and admired (think of the nerds emerging from Silicon Valley, for example). Critics agreed that Nugent’s discussion of nerdiness and Asperger’s hit the mark, though his analysis of "cool nerds" and of nerdiness and race raised some debate. A few also pointed out glaring omissions: Where are Bill Gates, George Lucas, and The Simpsons characters? How do female nerds fit into the picture? How does nerd love differ from "normal" love? "Perhaps Nugent will tackle these issues in another book," notes the Christian Science Monitor. "Nerds, after all, love sequels."