Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bookworm, grind, egghead, highbrow, intellectual, brain, genius, scholar, slacker

I wish this book had been around when I was in high school. I realize looking back that I shied away from fully embracing my nerdiness, the way most of my friends did, either because there was no other choice or it never even occurred to them to be otherwise. Sure I flaunted my individualism by quoting the likes of Emerson - "whoso would be a man (or woman in my case) must be a non-conformist" or "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." I confess: I was a dilettante or is that nerdilettante? (Right there proof of my nerdiness.) Apparently I wasn't alone in my unwillingness or inability to identify with the group. Benjamin Nugent recounts his own experiences denying his best friend and disengaging himself from the nerd pack in American Nerd: The Story of My People.

The first part of the book traces the origin of the word nerd and its evolution. It was a bit slow going for me even though I loved reading about how Anne Beatts and Rosie Shuster developed Lisa Loopner and Todd DiLaMuca* as well as the creation of that great late '90's show, Freaks and Geeks. Part 2 provides examples of the many ways the concept of nerd finds expression in our culture starting with two guys who are debate partners (yeah, I was a debater too). In my favorite chapter Nugent deconstructs nerd chic and explains some of the advantages to pretending to be a nerd - primarily as a way of downplaying class and gender differences. He also discusses the advantages of being a nerd in the workplace - a tangent I found particularly illuminating considering I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area and identify with the frustrations of hanging out with creative types either of the engineer or artistic persuasion (hey, I'm an artist myself). This is the killer quote:
The fake a way of dealing with constant threat. The threat, in this case, is a lot milder than that of nuclear war, but it's the single largest threat that hangs over the lives of creative professionals in major cities: losing momentum in your career, losing the aura of an up-and-comer, acquiring the odor of failure. The nature of work in the media, broadly defined, is that it's insecure and transient. Survival depends on maintaining a register of acquaintances who think you're good at what you do, think you're cool, want to hire you, have the power to do so, and haven't been rejected by you sexually. There's often a careerist hustle in the depths of friendships, even when the surface is calm...there is a new version of Richard Yate's immortal couple in Revolutionary Road, the Wheelers. They live in Park Slope, or Silver Lake, or Wicker Park. "God," they sometimes think, "in a way, wouldn't it be kind of nice to be an engineer in the fifties? Not really with all that sexism and conformity and general attitude of fascism, you know? And the discomfort about sexuality? But just not trying to be someone you're not?"
Originally Todd DiLabounta until the real DiLabounta threatened a lawsuit.

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