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American Nerd: The Story of My Peopleby Benjamin Nugent
Author Q & A
Why did you write a book about nerds? You say were a nerdy child — do you think that gives you special insight? Alternatively, was your own experience and identification as a nerd a hindrance in any way?
I'd always wanted to track down my junior high nerd friends and see how their lives turned out. Also, when I was a kid, the history of prejudice and stereotypes was a huge part of social studies. And I would always wonder, how come there's no book that explains why the kids in my school put me in a category, nerd, and scream it at me while they throw things at me and hit me in the nuts and stuff? The only way in which the experience of being a nerdy child was a hindrance was I had to go through several drafts that were too whiny memoir-y before I figured out that the parts of the book that were about my childhood had to focus on my friends more than me. In your research, which enclave of nerds entertained you the most, and which one appalled you the most?
Entertaining: The corner of the high school debate world I stumbled on was, without any literary explication on my part, an amazing Chekhovian mix of sympathetic characters and comedy and tragedy. All I had to do was take notes.
Appalling: If you're a narrative journalist in search of drama and humor, I think it's important to empathize with all your subjects rather than get appalled by them. I hate journalism that tries to be funny and interesting by being contemptuous; it never puts real humans on the page. But I criticized aspects of the pro Halo subculture pretty harshly.
How are the high school nerds of today different from the nerds of your youth?
In my day, it was mostly the hip-hop kids who wore hip-hop gear. Now a lot of the nerds appropriate Trick Daddy's look and use it as an impenetrable bag in which to hide their bodies. Kool Keith became Dr. Octagon when I was 18; maybe that ramped up the dork/hip-hop cultural exchange. Another major difference is that when I was in high school only the hugest nerds had social lives that revolved around networks on the web, and now everyone else has joined them online.
We often imagine that the nerdy kids we knew years ago have all gone on to run companies, invent technology, make money, or produce great art or literature. However, in your research for this book, you discover that the truth is a little more complicated. What happened when you tracked down your nerdy friends from junior high? What are they like now?
One, who grew up in deeply chaotic circumstances, partly in foster homes, became a liberal, devout Christian, finding in the church a lot of the same forms of solace and reason he used to find swinging swords around in our little nerd subculture. He has a kid and a wife and works with mentally disabled adults. He still plays role-playing games and reads nerdy books, but it's not his professional life. The other one, by contrast, is an executive at a video game company. Right after we fell out of touch, at 14, he fled his deeply religious household and ran away from home (at 15) and moved in with his nerdy gay uncle, then got a scholarship to boarding school. He's engaged and has friends and everything, but still has a social life through online nerd communities, via Worlds and Warcraft and stuff. And he's still fascinated by the violent worlds of sci-fi and fantasy and haunted by the violent version of right-wing, apocalypse-centered Christianity he was raised with and chose to reject. I think nerdy activities are cathartic for him in that way. So nerdiness was absolutely central to the way both their lives turned out, but not in a clichéd Bill Gates dot-com-boom how-you-like-me-now-world way.
In the book, you say that there is a rationale for despising nerds — but what is that rationale? Why do people hate nerds? Is it simply that they tend to be socially awkward, which makes other people uncomfortable?
Sometimes nerds can be dangerous and/or cruel because of obsession with technology and disinclination toward empathy. The horror of Victor Frankenstein, one of the earliest nerds in literature, is that he's able to make another being but he's not able to think, what would it be like to be this manufactured being, composed of animated corpse parts and terrifying to all who see him? A lot of the real-life horrors of modernity were/are created by nerds.
In telling the history of nerds, you also found yourself telling the history of jocks. How painful was that?
I went into a terrible depression and attacked a minivan carrying a soccer team to a cookout. No, actually, it turned out to be a nice entree into talking about class and ethnicity.
Connections have been made between the autism spectrum and nerd characteristics. You discuss this inherently controversial issue in the book. What were your conclusions, and were you surprised by them?
I was surprised by the extent to which Asperger's psychologists were comfortable saying a lot of people historically called nerds probably had Asperger's. I also found myself fascinated by how vague the rules of diagnosis are. I think I probably could have been diagnosed with Asperger's when I was ten, but I didn't have Asperger's; I don't have an Asperger's-y brain at all, actually, for better or for worse. I think I would have appeared to have it had the diagnosis been common at that point because I was anti-social and obsessed with nerdy pursuits. But that was because I was the sulky new kid in school and my parents had just split up and I was crazily sullen. I changed when I was a teenager. There's no system for separating the effects of temporary circumstances from symptoms of hardwired tendencies.
Much of what you discuss in the book involves identity — from age to gender to race and ethnicity. Does the cultural history of nerds reveal something larger about identity and identity politics?
Yeah it does. The visual stereotype of a nerd seems to have been highly influenced by centuries-old stereotypes of Jews and Asians, and the image of the gentleman-athlete developed as part of an Anglophilic response to the influx of immigrants to America in the late 19th century. The immigrant overachiever who studied his way into Harvard but couldn't achieve well-roundedness was sometimes called a "grind" or "greasy grind," back in the Progressive Era, and this idea of the grind is a precursor to the idea of the nerd.
Your book contains a chapter titled "The Graying of the Old School Nerd" – why do you think some people grow out of nerdiness, while others remain nerdy forever?
I think with some people nerdiness is the answer to things they're otherwise lacking in their lives; it gives them a community, it's where their interests lie. There's no reason to "grow out" of it. Other people start feeling a sense of connection to the potheads or the popular kids, and become social-climbing traitors, like I did.
When's the last time you rolled a polyhedral die?
I think late 1991 or early 1992. My dice collection was replaced by grunge.
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