American Nerd (review: 3/5)

American Nerd: The Story of My People

In the imagination of the fake nerd, the nerd is attractive because he is unaffected, untrendy to the point of primitivism, a kind of inert noble savage.

American Nerd: The Story of My People covers a pretty good range of history and culture, tying together various forms of the outcast and how this one particular version came together: the unathletic, socially dysfunctional, mathlete type (did I mention I was captain of my HS academic team?). It starts to get really good a few chapters into the book, when Benjamin Nugent dives into historical/literary precedent for today’s nerds and normals, e.g. Mary Bennet vs. Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice, Tibby in Howard’s End, Victor Frankenstein. He also has a great section on the history of sport and the beginnings of the nerd/jock split, and why it became so important for young men to be strapping and not Jewish (see: Muscular Christianity).

Drawing on T.S. Eliot’s essay, The Metaphysical Poets, he also delves into a split between feeling and thinking, the intellectual and the reflective. The works of Donne and his comrades were a sort of pinnacle of heart/brain unity; later writers like Tennyson, rebelling against the “rationative,” not so much. Eliot:

The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets… Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

Quality of the poetry aside, the split between feeling and thinking anticipates a social divide. Nugent:

Since the Romantic era, we have been in an age in which machines have the capacity for some minimal semblance of rational thought, performing tasks that once would have been the exclusive domain of humans. Reason is no longer quintessentially human; spontaneity is. People more inclined toward logical deliberation than spontaneous expression have started to become somehow less totally human…

The pathos of being a nerd is to feel that because you are comfortable with rational thought, you are cut off from the experiences of spontaneous feelings, of romance, of nonrational connection to other people. A nerd is so often self-loathing because he accepts the thinking/feeling rift, and he knows and cares that other people accept it, too. To be a nerd is often to live with a nagging feeling of one’s own incurable heartlessness.

The first half is great, but the book goes astray in the second. The second used more case studies and memoir. It had an anthropological observation sort of bent that doesn’t hold up nearly as well compared with the earlier chapters. I preferred Nugent’s wide reinterpretation of culture and history and literature.

But the second half does have a nice section on hipsters and the contemporary appeal of the nerd aesthetic, where I got the opening quote from. He ties it in with Norman Mailer’s essay The White Negro. There’s a nice connection between hipsterdom and the creative professions…

… a choice on the part of the privileged to identify with the outsider. The outsider in this case is the nerd, because nerds are people incapable of, or at least averse to, riding cultural trends. When your greatest fear is that you will become a loser because your intuition will fail to keep up with tastes, you embrace the nerd…

There’s also a nice bit on the connection between nerdiness and autism:

The idea that having a capacity for empathy, for expressing and understanding emotion, is part of being a normal male is fundamentally contemporary and a way of asking that men learn a traditionally feminine virtue. When men were in an unquestioned position of control in the economy—when the bedrock of the nuclear family was a single male wage, a flow of income largely unavailable to women—there was less force compelling men to make themselves attractive mates through understanding the feelings of others and expressing affection. The Asperger’s population is 90 percent male; it’s likely that one reason Asperger’s got “discovered” and then “boomed” is that the rest of us have slowly been revising our expectations of men.

2 thoughts on “American Nerd (review: 3/5)

  1. I think we are going to learn a lot more about Asperger’s in the next 10 years that is going to force us to rethink our definition of “normal” and “nerd”.

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