What's in a nerd? Plenty.

Author Benjamin Nugent shines a light on a widely mocked subculture.

American Nerd: The Story of My People By Benjamin Nugent Scribner, 240 pp., $20

The photos on the jacket of American Nerd: The Story of My People (a pocket protector, clunky eyeglasses, Dungeons & Dragons dice, a calculator, a comic book) quickly give away its topic. If you’ve attended an American high school within the past 50 years, you know where this is going: to the chemistry lab, the library, or band practice. Anyplace, in fact, but the gym.

With a lot of wonky charm and plenty of postgraduate-level analysis, Benjamin Nugent shines light on a widely mocked subculture that still manages to churn out billionaires by the boatload. “I will take a serious approach to a subject usually treated lightly, which is the nerdy thing to do,” Nugent writes.

The word “nerd” is fairly new, appearing only around mid-century as lingo for a “drip or a square.” But the concept has been around for centuries. Nugent finds classic nerds – more comfortable with concepts and calculations than emotions – in “Pride and Prejudice,” “Howard’s End” and P.G. Wodehouse.

But it’s one Victor Frankenstein who’s the best early example. Like others of his ilk, Dr. Frankenstein is enraptured by scientific pursuits but has no real understanding of how ordinary people work – or what life might mean to his misshapen creation.

Many nerds realize their handicaps but can’t change them. The “pathos of being a nerd,” Nugent writes, is that they feel robbed of “spontaneous feelings, of romance, of nonrational connection to other people.”

Nugent is a keen observer and complements his deep analysis with fascinating diversions into the worlds of pop culture and academia. He tracks different types of nerds, drops by a top debating team, explores how society has viewed both Jews and nerds as passionless, and checks in with a black high-school classmate who ignored stereotypes about nerddom and African-Americans.

American Nerd” is a short book, just 224 pages, and readers will be left wondering about other nerd topics. What special challenges do female nerds face? What’s nerd love like? Are nerds more likely to end up alone than other people? Perhaps Nugent will tackle these issues in another book.

Nerds, after all, love sequels.

Freelance writer Randy Dotinga lives openly as a nerd in San Diego.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.