AS A KID, Ethan Gilsdorf quoted Monty Python, was a "charter member of the Star Wars Fan Club," and presided over his school's A/V club. So it's hardly a surprise he also got sucked into Dungeons & Dragons—a game he credits with helping him through a challenging, wearying adolescence. But in '83, Gilsdorf scored his first kiss and put aside his 20-sided die.

Fast forward a few years, when Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies rekindled the nerdy flame inside Gilsdorf—and coincided with the freelance journalist's midlife crisis. The result: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, in which Gilsdorf investigates the worlds of fantasy and their real-life denizens, and also does plenty of hand-wringing about whether it's okay to be a nerd. ("Was I mired in some perpetual adolescence, or was I charmingly/innocently in touch with my inner child?" he frets.)

When Gilsdorf interviews geeks who, for better or worse, have wholeheartedly embraced their nerddom, his book's far more interesting than when he insecurely self-reflects. Gilsdorf talks to live-action roleplayers who dress as fairies; Joe and Paul DeGeorge, AKA "wizard rock" band Harry and the Potters; a woman who finds solace in World of Warcraft as her marriage crumbles. But alas, whenever Fantasy Freaks starts to get insightful, Gilsdorf retreats to memoir: Unlike those he interviews, he's unwilling to come out as a huge fucking nerd, and he can't stop worrying over it. (It might be a generational thing—Gilsdorf can't seem to move past an era in which geek culture was maligned and marginalized. "This never would have happened back in my youth," the awestruck author thinks at one of Harry and the Potters' rousing shows.)

Gilsdorf travels from New Zealand to Azeroth to delve into fantasy and its roots, but frustratingly, he keeps much of it at surface level: At Oxford, he discovers the college has little respect for Tolkien, a former professor there—but Gilsdorf never asks anyone why. In Wisconsin, Gilsdorf eulogizes D&D's creator, Gary Gygax, but glazes over his history. Throughout Fantasy Freaks, we get fascinating glimpses into some weird, admirable, and troubling lives—it's too bad they're overshadowed by Gilsdorf's moping over the fact that he can't find anyone to hook up with when he goes to Dragon Con.