Before I launch into a discussion of what a nerd is and where the idea of nerds comes from, I’d like to disclose that when I was eleven, I had a rich fantasy life in which I carried a glowing staff.
Thus opens Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People.
Personally, I imagined I had the energy bow that Hank the Ranger ran around with in the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon. Nevertheless, I recognized the call of a similar soul and immediately put down my other reading to plow through Nugent’s attempt at nerd ethnography.
What started well quickly fell into a haphazard amalgam of biography, etymology, anecdote and objective observation. His research regarding nerd history seemed as if it was compiled after a weekend of internet searches. Possibly that’s all there is. I can’t imagine there are too many scholarly tomes tucked away in library basements on the evolution of the “nurd”.
Additionally, Nugent seems to draw universal parallels to the anecdotes expressed in the book. It’s an interesting analysis of ostracism and kids’ response, but his writing seems more fitting as a freelance magazine article rather than a serious attempt at anthropological history. And perhaps that is what is most disconcerting about the book. It takes a topic that could be handled seriously, yet with a little self-deprecating humor, and turns it into a serious topic with a little self-loathing. His biographical bits take on the character of a therapist’s homework assignment.
Nugent still has some rather astute observations on the rise and eventual fall of nerd-chic. One of his more scathing, but undeniably perceptive views about the formula for the nerd-cool:
Being a fake nerd leaves you less of a nerd. You can both acknowledge your past (obeying the teenage principle of don’t-reinvent-yourself-or-we’ll-call-you-a-poser) and distance yourself from it (I am so undisputedly un-nerdy I can wear accessories and even pants that are nerdy and not be a nerd). This is why when you go to a party full of young music studio engineers, or arts journalists, or book editors, you look around and see a fake nerd uniform (bulky glasses, floppy hair, sweaters, low-top canvas sneakers useless for athletic activity).Despite other flaws, one can respect Nugent’s attempt to tackle a subject that seems to strike home with sincerity. His ability to separate quirk from individuality is a seemingly rare quality and one that substantially adds merit to his assessment of nerd culture.
You hear fake nerd conversation. It follows a model. You bring up an “obsession” or “total fascination” with a purportedly unfashionable subject. “I am such a dork about old Hawaiian slide guitar. I actually have every King Benny record. I’ve so got a problem.” “Dude, you want to hit In-N-Out burger? I basically live on their Protein Burgers when I’m in LA.”
This is a way of whipping out cultural capital, but not in the same way as leaving guests in the living room to retrieve a hollow-body guitar or a first edition of To The Lighthouse. The Gretsch and the Woolf say, “I am creative and educated, so I have an understanding of the blues and the Bloomsbury Group.” The Hawaiian slide recordings and the In-N-Out Burger, which are both low-end consumer products, say, “I love the things I love because I am guided by some untamed voice within me that cause me to have random obsessions. I will follow my individualized obsessions, not trends, and be transparent about those obsessions, even when those obsessions tell me to like things widely considered ugly and cheap.” It’s the cultural capital of quirk. pg. 123-124.