Sunday, December 20, 2009

CB's Book Reviews In Brief #2: Benjamin Nugent's "American Nerd"

American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent (2008, Scribner, 224 pp. plus afterword and short story)

Because I read so much non-fiction for work, I rarely find myself going the non-fiction route for pleasure. When I do, the topics are often oddball and one-offs (with an exception being made for my penchant for Soviet history and New Orleans sociology). Such was the case when I picked up Benjamin Nugent's linked collection of sorta memoirish essays, American Nerd. My pal Cookbook is actually the proud owner of this book, and over the last few months, it has sat on a sofa end table, sometimes for weeks at a time, awaiting my next visit over when I would pick it up and read a chapter or two. I always enjoyed what I read, frequently forcing Cookbook to listen to whatever pithy observation or well-written passage Nugent had included in whatever chapter it was I had been reading, but I never brought it home with me to finish.

Finally, when visiting some time last week, I realized I was only a couple chapters from the end, so I ask permission to bring the book home. I finally finished the sucker this morning, over hash browns dipped in chipotle sauce at the Beachland. Shortly after I finished the book and set it aside, a friend wandered up and asked me about it, whether I'd recommend it or not. My answer was probably a lot longer and more meandering than I'm sure they wanted - particularly since the question was likely motivated more by a desire for pleasant chit chat than a sincere query about over the merits of dusting off one's library card or Amazon wish list. Still, I take such considerations seriously, and gave my answer pretty much thusly.

The author takes on the idea of nerddom in a humorous yet serious way, and frames his investigation into his own experiences as a nerd in a semi-scholarly manner. He identifies the central idea and then explores several derivations of it, from the notion of nerd as hyper-tech oriented to topics that include role-playing games, autism, hipsters, and nerd friendship. There are moments of clarity and moments that are less so, just like there are some chapters that are brilliant and others that seem like a stretch. The strongest chapters, in the sense that they are the ones that stay with you long after the fact, are the two case studies, both of which make me want to befriend the subjects and offer them hugs.

In all, the book is very well-written (unsurprising from an author associated with the terrific literary journal n+1), though seems to be incomplete and somewhat insubstantial. Perhaps this is because the book is, deep down, a memoir about coming of age, written by a still young man who has only just come of age. Perhaps it is also because Nugent's conceptualization of nerdhood largely only encompasses his own experience, leaving to the mostly marginal sidelines notions of class and especially gender and, to a lesser extent, race. Still, for anyone in the creative class, I'd say, sure, pick up a copy and read it. It beats the vast majority of what you'll find in a supermarket and you'll see a lot of yourself in the book, too. Perhaps that's ultimately the reason behind my reluctance to totally embrace the book, because I see so much of myself in the subject, and thus am hyper-sensitive about the topics Nugent didn't write about or wrote about in a way that was different that how I'd have done it.

If you need a little more info before wading in, Salon has a nice Q&A with the author here.

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