Friday, January 30, 2009

Book Review: American Nerd - the story of my people

Being a bad consumer. Not wanting to consume. Being full.

My brain is full. I have not one, but two, nigh-infinitely-deep internet-based entertainment pursuits, I have BSW, I have 18IA, I have a game group if I could ever get off my rear. I have a few friends, which I need to work on.

I have a list of tasks, nigh infinitely deep in complexity.

I have a library, and a bookstore online, nigh infinitely deep in complexity.

I checked out American Nerd (subtitle:The story of my people), by Benjamin Nugent, from my friendly local library branch. American Nerd is a well-written mix of short chapters that segue easily into each other, making it an easy, if sometimes squirm-inducing read. There's a fair bit of history of nerds, the Christianized pro-jock movement of the turn of the century, Asperger's, and plenty of in-depth examples of nerdiness in the wild (science-fiction fans, Society for Creative Anachronism, and so on). It's got enough personal anecdotes to make me, a nerd, uncomfortable - not because I hate getting personal, but because Nugent's stories of his childhood nerdiness resonate closely with my own experiences in social discomfort. Being a nerd, in many ways, is about setting your own path, no matter how weird, and the pain that those choices cause. The life of the nerd is not a happy one.

Nugent includes a chapter about a polyamorous commune of sorts, which seemed out of place but the explanation also helps the book feel more gender-balanced and mature. I wonder if Nugent read Weird Like Us, easily my favorite book about self-created identity and community self-organization. I also wonder what material hit the cutting floor to create the breezy transitions between chapters. John Nash's comment in A Beautiful Mind, about the self-apparent nature of the mathematical proofs he intuited, and the paranoid delusions he encountered having the same ring of truth, reoccurred to me as I read the final chapters. There's a chapter where religion and nerdiness conflict; nerdiness can have a gnostic element, and be a salve for the wounded adolescent or adult. Nugent's book is an apology to his younger self, but mostly to the friends he made, then left behind as he grew up.

This book also feels a bit like the computer-nerd memoir Extra Life, which I think captures the nerdy coming-of-age arc more successfully than American Nerd because it has fewer digressions into nerd history, but then again, Extra Life is happier. Nerdiness is bound up in myself so tightly I don't know how I would extricate what a non-nerdy me would act or be.

Takeaway review: nerds and non-nerds should read American Nerd to reflect on how their childhood interests and self matured into their adult forms.


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