American Nerd: I'm Sick of Nerdiness Being the New Cool Thing Right Now

I'm not really a textbook nerd. I'm not great with gadgets, I'm not really into video games or role playing or comics and while I'm fairly obsessed with computers, I haven't achieved nerd-level proficiency. That said, in high school I used to think that I was THE nerd. I had tragic fashion sense, I delighted in writing essays that were two or three times the assigned length and I was a member (or head!) of every club that didn't involve sports.

According to Benjamin Nugent, author of American Nerd, I'm not really one but rather because I have uncool tendancies, I've been lumped in with the nerds. The classic nerd is usually male and possesses and intellect and bodily movements that strike people as machinelike. He tends to embrace activities that don't involve emotion or physical activity and yes these do include: sex, sports, food, acting, interior decorating, knitting etc.

Nugent also argues that certain races are designated as nerdy, most notably Asians (while Africans, which are stereotyped as being a "sensual" race, are the anti-nerd). With the influx of immigrants in the early twentieth century, WASPs developed convenient racial stereotypes in order to differentiate themselves from this "other." Jews and Asians were both categorized as nerds and therefore other. Thus, American schools began to prize physical fitness (hence the rise of the phys ed class) as essential to a good education and claimed it as part of an essential WASP upbringing (hence the importance of sports at universities even such as Harvard).

As you can see, there are tons of delicious, food-for-thought tidbits in this book. I won't spoil it for you but I would like to dig into one of the chapters that really interested me, the one on The Cool Nerd, i.e. the Hipster. AGHH. The Boomer generation was defined by being eclectic, by embracing making art AND money at the same time, by being increasingly urban and worldy. How does one rebel against such a thing? The answer is purity. The hipster is pure old-school - the Pabst Blue, the plaid shirts, the facial hair, the desire to make an armoire from scratch.

The hipster often works in the media and as we all know, or at least I do, accompanying a media job is a constant fear of being IRRELEVANT. What, you don't know about that new social media trend? That hot new place to get Japanese izakaya? How to wear a belt so that it perfectly cinches your oversized shirt? You've seriously never listened to NPR's This American Life? Get with it! And hey, nice new black frames.

The nerd is anti-trend. He or she has obsessions that are viewed by hipsters as authentic i.e. no trend is going to dictate to the nerd whether to play D&D, he or she either loves it or not and plays it regardless of how hip it is. Thus, the hipster assumes the posture of the nerd (bizarre hobbies like making dioramas, clothes like shawl cardigans). But, and you could see this coming from a mile away, a hipster is not a nerd.

I won't spoil any more for you but for all you nerds and wanna be nerds out there, read this book. It's an authentic nerdy experience.

American Nerd: The Story of My People/ Benjamin Nugent / Simon and Schuster / PB, 2009


Ceri said...

I like the sound of this. In school, I wasn't so much a 'nerd', I was called a freak. And a swot. I think we also have different terms in the UK than in the US - we don't really say 'nerd.'

Nowadays, I'm a book nerd and a film geek. :D

John Mutford said...

I'm hoping for dork to have its moment in the sun.

Lindsey said...

Hmmmm my husbands friends and a good deal of my friends for that matter call me a geek. I don't think I qualify as a geek because I don't think I am as smart as one in regards to technology, spelling and grammar, random facts, etc. With that said I LOVE Star Trek (more specifically TNG), I play WOW, I read a ridiculous amount of books, I watch a rather obscene amount of Harry Potter on a weekly if not daily basis, and I love to crochet and do paper crafts. I just think these things make me "me." Looks like a pretty cool book though I'll have to check it out :)

B.Kienapple said...

John-according to this Venn diagram, dork is at the intersection of social ineptitude and obsession (and sans an iota of intelligence). Perhaps you're looking for the return of the dweeb? Socially inept and smart? Sounds OK to me as long as I'm not stuck beside them at a dinner party. Actually, I'd rather be stuck beside someone like that than an airhead blabber mouth.
Lindsey-TNG! I need to re-watch that whole series.
You might qualify as a geek (see Venn diagram mentioned above).

supreem said...

I have always been classified as nerdy/geeky because of reading all things philosophy and loving to learn stuff.. and essentially doing things regardless of trends. And I think that nerds/geeks essentially are true to themselves regardless of any social cultural changes. :x
I like the post (I'm going to share, if you don't mind).

B.Kienapple said...

Thanks for sharing supreem! That nerdiness is trendy right now is very strange since the nerd is supposed to be anti-trend. But I guess grunge was appropriated and commercialized, so why not geek culture? This too will pass, though.


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