March 24, 2011


Nerds: How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies, and Trekkies Can Save America* (*and Why They Might Be Our Last Hope). By David Anderegg, Ph.D. Tarcher/Penguin. $14.95.

The Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $16.99.

     Why, exactly, is it good to be smart in America? The societal answer is pretty clear: smart people, collectively, make life better for everyone, creating innovations from the Internet to 3-D blockbuster movies to television programs…well, maybe not all those things have much value. But there are computers and computer software and scientific discoveries that make it possible for people (smart and less-smart alike) to live longer and better lives – even people who do not pay particular attention to basic elements of healthful living, such as proper nutrition and exercise …well, maybe not all those innovations are unlimited blessings, either. But accepting, for the moment, that there is societal benefit to being collectively smart, why is it good for an individual to be smart in the United States? If the collective accomplishments of the intelligent are at best a mixed blessing, the individual value of intelligence is even more difficult to pin down. Few U.S. presidents and even fewer senators and U.S. representatives have been notable for their intelligence – smart people are more likely to be relegated to pursuits such as academia, where they are woefully underpaid, while those who pretend to be what they are not (that is, actors) and those whose main skill is entertaining crowds while often damaging other people (that is, sports figures) are grotesquely overpaid and observed with attention that borders on (and sometimes crosses over into) fanaticism.

     The issue of the importance of nerds is the foundation of psychotherapist and Bennington College psychology professor David Anderegg’s Nerds, a book with significant points to make that seems a trifle unsure how serious to be while making them. Anderegg’s underlying argument about the importance of the subgroup called “nerds” certainly makes sense, but he spends a great deal of time talking around the major issues of nerds-vs.-non-nerds (a sort of modern revision of C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, in which both the “cultures” were intellectual ones) before he gets to his primary points. Maybe that is his way of enticing non-nerds into the book – but non-nerds probably won’t read it, anyway (reading is so, like, dorky). Anderegg spends time, for example, trying to divine the differences between nerds and geeks – after admitting that the terms are often used interchangeably. “Some view the geek as a less technically skilled nerd.” “‘Geek’ is now more likely to be used when people describe themselves, because it is slightly less pejorative than ‘nerd.’” “One version of the distinction, provide by a college friend of mine: Nerds are the ones who don’t go to the party[,] so they can stay home and do homework; geeks bring their homework to the party.” Entertaining, all this, if not very enlightening or significant. Anderegg also tends to glibness when discussing serious matters, such as underachievement in math and science by American students: “Policy makers in education and government are full of answers for these questions, but, as you might expect, their answers strongly suggest remedies that can be implemented by policy makers.” Then there is the matter of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which “apparently everyone enthusiastically embraces” even though it “teaches the lesson that reading is stupid and teachers are ridiculous, unappealing, self-deluded bores.” This is absolutely true – but Anderegg stops short of calling for getting rid of the story as a tale for young children, although he does eventually suggest counterbalancing it with Harry Potter and Homer’s Odyssey. Often, Anderegg is too busy moving on to his next point to focus on the one he just made, tossing about chapter titles such as “They Can’t Help It, They’re Just Sick” that include such subchapter headings as “The Nerd Genocide.” This book is very well written in a breezy style that belies its underlying seriousness. Unfortunately, it belies it so well that some readers may not dig down to the foundational elements at all. Anderegg gets into a discussion of the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore, “the archetypal nerd,” and George W. Bush, “the all-American popular kid, the jock’s jock, the regular guy whose ignorance of facts was noted by the press…but was never held against him by the press or by the public.” Uh, come again? The press regularly lampooned and lambasted Bush, but in the end it did not matter – “the end” being less the disputed outcome in 2000 (“a mythic struggle that was in some ways thrust upon” both candidates) than the overwhelming victory of Bush in 2004 (about which Anderegg has nothing to say). The book’s conclusions are certainly valid. One of them: “The kids who will really be hurt by nerd/geek stereotypes are the kids who will shut down parts of themselves in order to fit in.” And Anderegg’s recommendations to find appropriate positive models for people good in math and science, prevent kids from watching TV shows “that explicitly denigrate intelligence” (which ones don’t?), help brainy kids find their own groups into which they can fit, and so on, are unexceptionable – if more difficult to implement than he suggests. Nerds is a book with important (if not really original) points to make and an easy-to-read style – it is unfortunate that, at least to some extent, the style gets in the way of the seriousness of the underlying message.

     Maybe Dan Gutman can better lead the way toward literary tales in which proto-nerds can rejoice. The prolific author (of My Weird School Daze and other lightweight series) begins a new action-adventure series called The Genius Files, for ages 8-12 (the age group most vulnerable to nerd/geek stereotyping, as Anderegg points out) with Mission Unstoppable, in which twins Coke and Pepsi (Pep) McDonald have more brains apiece than both their parents combined. The twins, whose adventure begins eight days before they turn 13, start getting mysterious notes, have to unravel the coded messages, and along the way (“the way” being a cross-country family vacation) get trapped in the basement of their school (which is on fire), have to jump off a cliff, and are thrown into a giant vat of Spam. Among other adventures. The book is, of course, a romp – Gutman always writes romps – but it is a romp with a difference that puts it into not-bad-for-nerds territory. This is, after all, a road trip across America, so the McDonald family visits various offbeat real-world places, such as the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia and Bonneville Salt Flats State Park. And Gutman provides Google Maps information so readers can follow Coke and Pep’s adventures, seeing just where they are going and how long it takes to get there – a clever form of interactivity that uses the Internet without being entirely bound by it. As for the series title, Gutman has it come from a secret government document whose author, Dr. Warsaw, has concerns mirroring Anderegg’s, including “older generation inflexible, stagnant,” “start over – geniuses – standardized test scores – find them.” Gutman writes that later, after having his inspiration, “Dr. Warsaw would sit down and synthesize his shorthand audio notes into a 434-page manifesto titled ‘The Only Way Out: The Simple Solution to America’s Most Pressing Problems of the 21st Century.’” Or, in fewer words, the Genius Files. So Coke and Pep are part of a save-the-world (or at least save-the-country) plan from the benevolent government (a concept that really does seem far-fetched these days) – and their adventures are part of Something Bigger. This is good, because otherwise it might be hard to understand why the kids and their family visit the two biggest balls of twine in the world, and why the twins do something “as foolish, dangerous, and yes, let’s say it – stupid – as going on a joyride in a recreational vehicle” (the reason has something to do with poop; Gutman is not really writing for intellectuals). Mission Unstoppable is surface-level fun, yes, but it does offer some forms of involvement beyond a straight read, and it does celebrate (admittedly quirkily) kids who are both smart and clever. Parents looking for entertaining but not entirely mindless books to engage their children’s intelligent minds could do a lot worse.

No comments:

Post a Comment