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The anthropology of the pocket protector

In 'American Nerd,' Benjamin Nugent studies a subculture close to his heart.

June 15, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

MAYBE THE time for revenge really has come: "American Nerd: The Story of My People," by Benjamin Nugent, is one of the season's most talked-about cultural studies. A New York-based music journalist and the author of "Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing," Nugent, 30, has produced a book both comic, in its recollections of the author's nerd childhood, and dead serious, in its anthropological excursions into the nerd's origins.

He visits a faux-medieval club and deciphers the work of Mary Bucholtz, a UC Santa Barbara linguist who sees nerdy students as defined by "hyperwhiteness" -- their tendency to ignore the African American slang and styles used by the popular kids. (Nugent seems to have recovered: He's dating actress-writer Mindy Kaling of "The Office.")

We spoke by phone to Nugent, who talks in a flat style, part self-deprecation, part too-cool-for-school, from a tour stop in Portland, Ore.

What made you want to write about one of the most loathed creatures in contemporary American history?

Being that loathed character, in short. When I was a kid, everyone called me a nerd. I grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and Amherst, Mass., which are sort of Berkeley-esque towns where the history of prejudice and categorization was a big part of our education.

But nobody could offer an explanation of where this apparently arbitrary category I'd been placed into came from. So instead of studying a real thing, I wanted to study the genealogy of a construct. I wanted to figure out why I was so despised and, if possible, empathize with the people who despised me.

The places you grew up were about as tolerant as anywhere in America.

I say at one point in the book, "It's really hard to be not tolerated in Amherst." And somehow I managed it. I think what happens with nerds is this cycle where they're rejected, and then they start thinking of themselves as this elite race -- cutting themselves off deliberately as a defense mechanism. And then the cycle repeats itself.

How far did you find the nerd went back?

I went back to the early 19th century. Romanticism was blossoming in England at the dawn of the Machine Age, and the movement called Muscular Christianity, espoused by Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley, started out in England and only then became popular among the Protestant establishment in the United States. So we get our ideas of romanticism, the soul versus the machine, and the gentleman athlete, from England.

You talk about the anti-nerd being the American jock.

The American jock is the creation of a few different forces, and one of the most interesting ones is the idea, and here I'm quoting from Teddy Roosevelt, that physical education is a racial defense weapon for the Nordics. That if what he considered the Nordic race became insufficiently masculine, became too comfortable, couldn't engage with the physical world, then America would never have a great destiny the way England did.

So he was emphatic that young boys should read "Tom Brown's Schooldays," which was one of the models for Muscular Christianity, and also one of the models of Harry Potter.

You traveled the country for this book, and some key chapters take place in Southern California. What did you find here?

Southern California has an amazing nerd landmark, the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society in North Hollywood. It's a relic of a time when nerds physically got together in one place to discuss their interests, like sci-fi and the space race and D&D and anime.

I went through some records, and the attendance used to be larger and, more important, the average age used to be late 20s, and now it's clearly middle-aged to late-middle-aged. The people who would have been their [new] members are on the Internet.

Why was that physical getting together so important?

I think a lot of people in these subcultures think that it's not important, that they're exchanging ideas, or playing a game that's fun, or figuring out problems -- they really do crave social contact and community and a kind of spiritual release. The things they did at the Science Fantasy Society were in some ways like a Quaker meeting house. They'd eulogize a member who had recently died, or a writer they were a fan of.

Was there a writer who seemed to be the favorite?

[Robert] Heinlein seemed to be pretty universally looked up to there. I also visited a "polyamorous" household that was inspired by his writings; this group household where everyone can kind of make out with everybody else.

Did you go anywhere else in California for the book?

I also went to the Antelope Valley, the local branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism. They're called the Kingdom of Caid, the California chapter, and I went to a huge battle they had with Kingdom of Atenveldt, the Arizona chapter -- a huge war that happens once a year. It was maybe a thousand guys, in armor, charging each other in a park in the desert. The night I got back from it, I went to a party in Beachwood Canyon, and talk about a contrast.

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