A book of the bookish

Reviewed by A.J. Jacobs, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)

When I was assigned this review, the editor wrote me a note: “I hope you don’t take offense at this, but your name sprang to mind as a reviewer for a book on nerds.”

I probably qualify as a nerd because, among other things, I wrote a book about reading the encyclopedia — an activity that’s up there on the dorkiness scale with speaking Elvish over ham radio.

But take offense? Not at all.

Perhaps in high schools where quarterbacks still sit atop the social hierarchy, the word “nerd” continues to damage egos. But in adulthood, it’s lost much of its sting. In fact, we live in a golden age of nerd-dom. As David Brooks pointed out in the New York Times last month, self-confident nerds are taking over culture: the Google founders, even Barack Obama, who can be seen as the nerdy alternative to President Bush’s swaggering jock.

And now, as with any movement, the geek crowd has gotten its own cultural history, in Benjamin Nugent’s entertaining and intelligent American Nerd. Nugent begins with his definition of the nerd. Nerds, he writes, are people who remind others of machines. They aren’t quite robots, but they aren’t quite human either. They are passionate about a technical topic, they speak in formal English, they favor logic over emotion, and they avoid confrontation.

The word “nerd” was coined by Dr. Seuss in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo, in which he wrote “I’ll sail to Ka-Troo, and bring back an IT-KUTCH, a PREEP, and a PROO, a NERKLE, a NERD, and a SEERSUCKER, too!” The word seeped into the culture, first popping up on college campuses, then via TV shows such as “Happy Days” and “Saturday Night Live.” But the nerd archetype has been around since at least the 19th century, long before any human uttered the N-word. The roots, says Nugent, can be traced to the rise of industrialism and the “romantic reaction against science/machinery.” Culture began to embrace a “perceived split between sensuality and reason.” Smart and sexy drifted apart.

The nerd-bashing, Nugent argues, was later fueled by such developments as the rise of physical education, immigration and “Muscular Christianity.” The era of Teddy Roosevelt, college football, robust health and outdoorsiness had little tolerance for effete bookworms.

The most fascinating parts of the book are those that deal with the interplay between nerdiness and ethnicity. Nugent argues that racism comes in two forms: stereotyping an ethnicity as too animalistic and sensual (for instance, Africans) or portraying them as sexless and machine-like (such as Jews and Asians). Nerdism, in other words. “If a propaganda artist of the Third Reich had time-traveled to 1984 and watched Revenge of the Nerds, he might have interpreted the hero, Louis Skolnick, as a traditional age-old caricature of a Jew, and Ogre and his band of overwhelmingly blond-haired and blue-eyed jocks as the image of ideal Aryans.”

Likewise, Asians were portrayed in minstrel shows as “John Chinaman,” who was always losing his girlfriends to white men. John Chinaman survived nearly intact in Long Duk Dong from the 1984 teen movie “Sixteen Candles,” frightening and repelling Molly Ringwald by calling her “hot stuff.”

Nugent says that nerds shy away from confrontation, which may be why I have nothing vitriolic to say about the book. But I do have two gripes: First, Nugent talks a lot about how nerds employ formal, rule-based speech. But to me, the real trademark of nerd speech is their obsession with breaking those rules, with exploiting the ambiguities in language. Nerds are obsessed with puns. I once went to a Mensa convention (research for a book, I swear), and the amount of wordplay was astonishing. An architect was said to have an “edifice complex.” The eating of frogs’ legs makes the frogs “hopping mad.”

Second, and more substantially, 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. Many of these adult nerds are not faking it. They grew up receiving wedgies from the popular kids and obsessing over Philip K. Dick novels. Now, the information economy has made their peculiar skill set and obsessions valuable.

May the force be with the neo-Nerds, I say.

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