Summary: Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd is a worthwhile but deeply flawed book. The first section creating a social history of nerddom is unique and interesting, discussing the creation of the nerd in literature and popular culture — and the racial/ethnic elements in the creation of the “nerd”. The second section veers into vignettes about nerds that aren’t very edifying.
Despite the rest of this review, I really enjoyed reading the first half of the book, where Nugent theorizes the beginning of nerd. He starts with Mary in Pride and Prejudice, moves on to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and then discusses how those that are now called nerds got place there. Nugent defines nerds in two groupings:
1) mostly male and intellectual and socially awkward “in ways that strike people as machinelike”
2) gender equal and nerd status “by sheer force of social exclusion”
American Nerd‘s true strength is the section explaining how Jewish-Americans and Asian-Americans became the exemplar of nerddom, in contrast to racialized all-American athleticism.
One element about the book that I wasn’t sure I was going to touch on directly was the author’s blase attidude to blatant sexism. One chapter starts with a long section about the nerd slang meaning of this word (usually as a verb, similar to pwnage, exemplifying complete domination of a gaming opponent). Nary a mention of the implications for female gamers or for others appears.
This lack of understanding of sexism and male privilege in discussing nerddom is especially disappointing in light of the extensive historical discussions of the intersection between the need to define nerddom to encompass stereotypes about Jewish-Americans and Asian-Americans. According to Nugent, WASPy athletic America needed “the nerd” as a Dorian Grey-like mirror to define what men should not to be.
So where does that leave the female nerd?
The book does mention girl nerddom in passing — including two bizarre mentions of Naomi Novik’s series sans names. Also, within the nerds-dig-Japanese culture section, Nugent creates a two-page amalgam of yaoi and slash into all things fangirl. And it is done with that “girls are so weird!” tone.
An element missing from all of the books I’ve read about nerds, gifted kids, and the autism/Asperger spectrum is the issue of difference within difference. What is it like to be a black or latina/o nerd, accused of “acting white”? What is different about the experiences of immigrant versus born-here nerds? First-generation nerds versus family ‘o nerd? And I’m still waiting for a full discussion of gender and sexuality in nerddom.
One last problem with the book — no index and no bibliography!
This book is available in many libraries and its ISBNs are 9780743288019 0743288017