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Geek wisdom goes mainstream

Hard-core nerds impart teachings of 'Star Wars' and Tolkien.

By Ethan GilsdorfContributor / December 13, 2011

In this 1977 image provided by 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, from left, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill are shown in a scene from 'Star Wars.'

20th Century-Fox Film Corporation/AP/File

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College, like many rites of passage in America, is all about wandering. So when the daughter of some friends headed off to college this fall, they told her before she embarked on her journey, "Not all those who wander are lost."

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For those not in the know, that line comes from a poem in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." Good advice, and not just for hobbits.

The fact that geek culture has stormed the gates of Castle Mainstream is old news. Yet it's increasingly clear that nerdy passions – fantasy books, science-fiction movies, comic books, role-playing games – offer more than good times and camaraderie. They teach life lessons – guidance for a generation of nerds raised in a less conventional, DIY, "choose your own spiritual adventure" world, nerds who are now raising Geek Crop 2.0.

This reporter is one of them. In my 1970s upbringing, my post-hippie parents never took me to church. I tried Boy Scouts and 4-H, but these groups felt old-fashioned, too sincere. Then, in 1977, as a 10-year-old I saw "Star Wars." Suddenly, the idea that a "Force" surrounds and binds us seemed as plausible a theory for what glued the universe together as any religious teaching.

I began seeking moral counsel not from den mothers or teachers, but from pop culture priests like Yoda, Gandalf, and Gary Gygax (co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons). My friends and I recited "holy scripture" from "Monty Python" and "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Seeking courage today, I still repeat Yoda's counsel: "No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try."

And the Force is not only with me.

"Every coach I know, in every sport there is, uses Yoda's 'There is no try.' It's the sports mantra," says Jim MacQuarrie, a blogger for wired.com's GeekDad.

"When I was a little kid, the two biggest books on my shelf were 'The Children's Bible' and 'D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths,' " says Stephen Segal, editor of "Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture." Neither book felt to him more true or real than the other. "I fell in love with all their stories together, with the idea of fragile yet fiery humans struggling to contend with forces larger than themselves."

Later, when as an adult he pondered the light and dark sides of the Force, or scientific concepts of energy and entropy, "These things all made sense, because they all seemed to be describing the same universe, just in different imagery."

"Geek Wisdom" is one of several new books that collects the lore that hard-core nerds have been jabbering to each other for eons. Segal and his writers selected quotes from the movies "Ghostbusters," "Back to the Future," and "The Princess Bride," among others, to illustrate lessons for the self, relationships, and the universe. One pearl: When one finds oneself being drawn into a pointless fight, remember Matthew Broderick's words in the film "WarGames": "The only winning move is not to play."

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