Posted on June 7, 2009
Book Review: American Nerd, The Story Of My People by Benjamin Nugent
I did not think that I would write a review of this book. I start reading dozens of books like “American Nerd” ,but in all honestly, it is the rare one that I actually finish. Even though I am a huge fan of non-fiction, I’m really not a fan of “diatribe”. If it feels to me that an author has written a book merely to prove some point (i.e. a 250 page rebuttal to a bad grade a college professor awarded 10 years ago), I tend to to sense it right away and stop reading. These texts tend to have long paragraphs of argument with little evidence and an absence of expert quotes and paraphrase. Either there has to be a great story woven into the text (i.e “Hackers” by Steven Levy) or there has to be some kind of personal element added to the mix that begs me to finish the text (i.e. “Candy Freak” by Steve Almond).
When I started reading “American Nerd” my diatribe sensor instantly went off. Nugent spends the first few chapters exploring the etymology of the word “Nerd” by finding cultural and literary references from the past 150 years. Surprising though, just as the text starts to enter the “diatribe” mode. Nugent changes subjects. At first I was put-off by this as well. He seemed to be leaving out some key information that was necessary to tie it all together. For instance, in a section where he describes “nerds” in pop culture, he seems to jump to the “nerds” sketch from Saturday night Live and talk about it as if his audience can read his mind and understand all the connections he is making that are not actually on the page.
Still, Nugent has surprises in-store. As the pages turn, he weaves just enough evidence into his material to quench those he feels need “proof”, and then he starts his “journey”. While he is not as specific (at first) as the the actual quest that is embarked on in something like Almond’s “Candy Freak”, Nugent none-the-less moves from pure academic exercise, to one based on experience. He visits different cultural groups that are seen as “nerdy” as he shows how both the groups and their members are essentially the same. While this turn is surprising,the final twist is even better. Nugent finds a away to take this exercise to very personal place. Without much elaboration, the author finds his true voice by the last few chapters and the point of the entire book becomes readily apparent. While this in itself is a fulfilling experience, it is also a microcosm for the entire story he is trying to tell. In short, the whole process of trying to chronicle the “American Nerd” is fairly nerdy exercise unto itself.
I finished “American Nerd, The Story Of My People” and enjoyed it much more than I thought possible. Nugent covers some territory in the last few chapters that I do not believe I’ve ever read from another author. By the end, you realize that Nugent has not only written about what it means to be a “nerd”, but also the process in which a person tries to extract oneself from the cultural pit of that designation, and in-turn, some of the guilt and shame that goes along with it. Even if Nugent did not know this when he set-out, his whole experience is more common than he might believe. However, by being one of the first people to actually chronicle it, he sets himself and his book apart from anything remotely similar. For this, I highly recommend this book for anyone who reads this site.
You can find the book here is our Buyer’s Guide.