As one would expect from an author who also penned a book called Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, Benjamin Nugent's American Nerd does acknowledge the hipster nerd appropriation phenomenon so prevalent in this town and others [see Letters for further griping on the subject]. The book as a whole, though, is a very unironic and largely unfashionable attempt to locate the origins of the archetype. As in, how did the idea of a socially retarded, big glasses-wearing, short pants-clad social outcast develop and solidify in the popular imagination?
Nugent dutifully tracks the origins of both the word and the aesthetic, in a two-part book that first examines the history of the nerd, and then wraps up with a less-interesting series of case studies of nerd subcultures. His efforts to pin down the racial elements of the term are fascinating, if underdeveloped, and he makes an interesting correlation between the development of the "jock" archetype as a late-19th century reaction against industrialization, and the subsequent stigmatization of nerds as "machinelike":
"The pathos of being a nerd is to feel that because you are comfortable with rational thought, you are cut off from the experience 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."
For all that Nugent is a self-described nerd, though his book lacks the singularity of focus that he ascribes to the nerdy: The book is overambitious in its scope, skittering between subjects as disparate as Freaks and Geeks, the relationship between autism and nerdiness, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the 19th century, Halo gamers, and the Society for Creative Anachronism, all in 224 short pages. One ends up wishing he would develop his ideas more fully, instead of devoting only short chapters to such wildly divergent topics. Nugent is a clear, funny, engaging writer, and it's a testament to his skills that the biggest complaint about his book is that it just isn't long enough.