rating: 4 of 5 stars
I ran across a recommendation for American Nerd somewhere in the blogosphere, and the title alone sparked my curiosity enough that I ordered a copy and dove in.
American Nerd is the history of the origin and development of the subcultures that are generally considered ultra-focused, non-athletic and sometimes adverse to emotion. I was fascinated right off the bat--had nerds always existed? Were there nerdy cavemen wandering around, writing computations on cave walls and not bothering to show off for the cave women like the others? Where did this nerd mythos come from, and how did it develop?
I was fascinated to learn that this schism between jocks (athletic young joiners) and nerds (indoor types focused on study) came about from a late nineteenth-century philosophy known as "Muscular Christianity," which maintained that "the soul of an ideal youth should house a lust for physical confrontation... physical contests were a necessary phase, or component, in the natural flowering of an Anglo-Saxon man." Thus the jock-versus-nerd conflict was born.
And Mr. Nugent traces the history of the mechanically-minded from the greasers to Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories and the origin of science-fiction to the concept of the "second self" and role-playing games to Saturday Night Live's "Nerd Rock" sketches to the fascination with Japanese culture to the position of nerds on the autism spectrum.
If you know anyone at all who is intellectual in ways that strike you as machinelike and socially awkward in ways that strike others as machinelike, you would probably enjoy this book. It's a mix of autobiography, research and informal stories, all wound together with a kind of deliberate grace and attention to detail that is, of course, a tad nerdy.
Even more so than "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" helped me understand my father, this book helped me to understand where my quietest and most devotedly geeky friends came from.