I, nerd

September 2, 2008

Getting right down to that part where I write about The Things I Read.

Ben Nugent’s “American Nerd” was the last book I ever bought at Olsson’s in Penn Quarter. Everything was half off, so I geeked out on discount dorkery with that and “The Ten-Cent Plague.” Alphabetically (and because it was on top of the giant pile of unread books on my shelf), I went with “American Nerd” first.

I’m organized that way, seeing the world in a specially reasoned way that makes sense to me. According to Nugent, that is big honking clue that a person is a nerd. I look up at my alphabetized DVD collection and shelves of books organized by theme (one shelf contains several copies of “Dracula” along with books on English ghost tales), and I’ll grant him that one.  

Another reason I went for the buy was that it had a Chuck Klosterman quote on the cover; that’s like attracting a bee to pollen, the pollen here being “a book endorsed by Chuck Klosterman,” and the “bee” being “a certain kind of intellectual 20-something girl who wears glasses even though she has contacts and who tends to spend her free time reading books rather than, say, dating.” The bee and the girl really don’t have much of a choice in the matter. Once the pollen-bearing flower/book is spotted by the bee/curious girl, the natural order kicks in.

I’m halfway through. Nugent helpfully broke the book into Parts 1 and 2, and I hit the end of the former just as I took my last bite of sweet potato salad at Teaism after work tonight. It’s surprisingly well-researched, especially given my generation’s trend toward unsourced personal reflection and essays high on childhood recollection but low on actual perspective (I’m looking at you, Sloane Crosby, author of “I Was Told There’d Be Cake”). This guy namechecks Jane Austin a dozen pages in, and among the many footnotes is one discussing conflicting spellings for the name of a second-season “Saturday Night Live” character. He’s a man after my very own copy-editor heart. 

And then, poor guy, he’s felled by the very same attention to detail. Describing the super-correct linguistic tendencies of nerds (!!), he makes a passing reference to a study of outcast high school kids and refers to a finding about “science-fiction fans and females who describe themselves as nerds.” 

Woah, what are you doing there, Ben? You’re smart enough not to make that construction by accident, so are you telling me those two groups are mutually exclusive? Really? Ok, maybe it’s actually the fault of the original study you’re referencing, in which case linguist Mary Bucholtz and I need to have a little chat about research design. Except no, it turns out Mary Bucholtz is a linguist who got her degree in classics, and as a recovering classics major myself, I’m constitutionally unable to fault her for anything. (Seriously, they make you pledge an oath. In Latin. People wear robes, and there’s lots of chanting.)*

Point being, maybe Nugent just slacked off on this sentence and he probably really didn’t mean to imply anything about geek girls not being able to love sci-fi. But the lightbulb still went off over my head and suddenly I was seeing his whole damn book as the story of “[Male] American Nerd: The Story of My People [Who are all Men].” I know that’s not fair, because:

a) (again) the guy namechecks Jane Austen and goes out of his way not to shortchange Mary Shelley; and

b) significant space is devoted to talking about two of the early “SNL” writers who happen to be women, and given the show’s lousy record with female comedians that has to be more than a coincidence.

It’s more likely that I’m reading all this research about the evolution of the nerd, and Nugent’s getting me interested not just in the “American nerd” and his evolution, but the subculture of chicks that so far lives in the margins of his book. 

Maybe I’m wrong and Part 2 is all about sci-fi-loving feminists. I’ll let you know.

 

*Turns out Bucholtz has done extensive research on geek girls, research that I must stay up all night reading now. 

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One Response to “I, nerd”

  1. […] about all I can say until I let some other thoughts sink in. Parts 2 and 3 definitely redeemed the sloppy thinking of Part 1 to the point where I want to mull over and respond to a book in a way I haven’t […]

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