ToddSeavey.com Book Selections of the Month (August 2008): American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent and Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking by D.Q. McInerny
Two months ago, I saw a reading by (and bought a book from) Benjamin Nugent, the author of American Nerd: The Story of My People. He correctly, I think, identifies the defining nerd attribute as the desire to apply predictable logical axioms to situations in which most normal people are mainly just interested in affirming social bonds and which to the nerd seem fraught with ambiguity.
He points to a Jane Austen character as a classic ur-nerd because she kept going to social events and actually wanting to get to the bottom of the witty propositions and generalizations people threw around, while most people there (unlike her) succeeded in finding friends and mates precisely because they merely touched on certain topics, to show they were all part of the same psycho-social milieu.
Nugent points to nerd favorites like the game Dungeons & Dragons as rational rules-application to (fictional) social situations, heartbreakingly contrasting the orderliness of such endeavors to the chaos in some nerds’ real lives, as with some of his troubled childhood friends. He also notes how recently (surprisingly so, to me) the concept of the “nerd” solidified in popular culture, with the spelling (sometimes rendered “nurd” in the 60s) not even standardized until recent decades.
Interestingly, there was from the beginning of the contemporary nerd phenomenon the potential for self-congratulation (it was at Rensselaer and MIT that the term became commonplace, usually used for humorous ends) and even for a sort of hipness: the “nerd couple” sketches on Saturday Night Live that really thrust nerds into the pop culture spotlight in the 70s were inspired by, of all things, geeky but profoundly cool Elvis Costello’s infamous performance of “Radio, Radio” on that show (making that moment perhaps one of the most exciting crossroads of differing cultural trends since the founders of anarchism, sci-fi, feminism, and Romanticism all came out of the same family back in the days of the Godwin/Wollstonecraft/Shelley clan).
Nugent is not overly expansive in claiming all things awesome as offshoots of nerdiness, though. He notes, for instance, that Harry Potter (who returns to theatres in November, along with his profoundly unnerdy but nerd-pleasing countryman James Bond) is not, at root, a true nerd but rather a descendant of Tom Brown, the athletically successful ideal British schoolboy from Tom Brown’s School Days, a precursor to the manliness cult of Teddy Roosevelt, the Progressives, and outdoors-loving late-nineteenth-century proto-fascists.
The Costello example suggests that nerds always had the potential to see themselves not merely as outcasts but as the secretly hip outcasts who deserved instead to be the elite. By contrast, though, Nugent taught me something about the hipsters in plentiful supply in New York City (at fiction readings and in places like Williamsburg) who merely look like nerds (like all those women in the early 90s wearing overly large glasses): Rather than being authentic nerds indifferent to socialization, these people, he argues, have chosen to play at being the-nerd-outcast in the same way their hip predecessors played at being the-peasant-outcast in hippie days or the-Negro-outcast in beatnik days. Damn hipsters!
Two of my own youthful inspirations, much like Potter, defy simple “nerd” labels by being part of an older sound-body-sound-mind, WASPy hero-ethos: Tom Swift and Johnny Quest, both of them athletic blonde boys without any noticeable social awkwardness who happen to be scientific geniuses as well as popular, happy kids with interesting friends. My own downfall as a youth was probably in thinking that if I mastered the brainy part, the benefits of the social/athletic virtues would just accrue to me naturally. (And to continue with the vaguely-eugenic trope for a moment: given how little I’ve exercised all my life, if I came from worse genetic stock, who knows just how truly nerdy I’d look and seem — it’s terrifying to contemplate…)
And speaking of sci-fi — a few bonus nerd notes before moving on to my second Book Selection:
•James Pinkerton had a piece on Reason.com that was a hypothetical looking-back at the evolution of liberty from the vantage point of 2058 A.D., and after taking us in a fairly-academic fashion through imagined/likely developments in Taiwan and the Middle East, he ends — as if in an inadvertent parody of libertarian futility but without humor — by noting that the best (albeit still very slim) hope for freedom probably lies in asteroid or Martian colonies but is not likely to be found much closer to the “core.”
He probably should have just typed the phrase “Give up” over and over about six hundred times.
•Meanwhile, my acquaintance Stephanie Sellars (who will face off against Anna Broadway in our Sept. 28 Debate at Lolita Bar on sex) is acting in the erotic online sci-fi series The Fold, I kid you not.
•And non-sci-fi-geek Diana Fleischman from last month’s Lolita panel informs me of some cool steampunk gadgetry (and some rare graph humor, also suitable for nerds). I’ve long been fond of this steampunk site, BigRedHair, by two comic book creators, myself.
Ali Kokmen (visible here giving a rousing speech at the recent Comic-Con in San Diego) gave me Being Logical by D.Q. McInerny. Everyone, even those who fancy themselves logical, would benefit from reading it, just as a reminder and refresher — however, I must say, much like observing nerds, reading this book’s very methodical description of logic is a reminder of the weirdness that sometimes results when the brain over-examines things normally done by “instinct.” Many rules become alien once they become conscious — like the odd idea of “the excluded middle,” fundamental to rational thought (something either exists or doesn’t) but which seems less plausible the more I think about it. Or take McInerny’s curious passage about how one might deductively conclude one’s cat was responsible for a milk carton being knocked over if other animals in the area are too small, something perfectly reasonable that starts to sound almost paranoid schizophrenic when spelled out in detail.
Nonetheless, we need this book, since some very bad, illogical arguments clearly carry great weight in most people’s brains, such as (to take one I constantly have to deal with):
1. You say free markets are good and that government should spend less.
2. George Bush also said that.
3. However, he defied free markets on occasion for protectionist purposes — and oversaw vast increases in government spending, including for wars, leading to economic problems.
4. Therefore…free markets and government spending cuts are bad.
Damn it, does one really need to be a libertarian to see why step 4 in that argument in no way follows from 3?
Apparently one does need to be a libertarian, given how often I hear this argument — and similarly-constructed ones (on topics from war to abortion) — from liberals.
(Therefore I suggest everyone become a libertarian immediately. QED.)
Let me add that I wish people (usually conservatives) would also avoid the all-too-tempting argument “Gore says we should worry about global warming, but Gore produces lots of CO2, therefore we need not worry about global warming.” Worth knowing Gore’s a hypocrite, certainly, but if (like me) you think global warming is overhyped, it doesn’t help to run around saying, in effect, “Oh no! Even Gore isn’t fighting CO2 enough!” That still makes it sound as if the fearful people in the global warming debate have the moral high ground and as if Gore should be trying even harder to be green, the opposite of the intended message from his opponents and warming-skeptical critics (but more on that particular issue in my November Book Selection — and in September, read about the sexy latest book from Pagan Kennedy, though the aforementioned Sellars and Broadway, it turns out, will be the ones to broach sexual topics at Lolita that month; in the interim, why not join me at Iggy’s Karaoke on Second at 76th from 8pm-on this Tuesday, August 5, for a nerdy but happy celebration of my thirty-ninth nerd birthday?).