Book Reviews: “American Nerd” & “The Decline of Men”

(note: this is cross-posted from OverMediated)

American Nerd: A Story of My People” by Benjamin Nugent explores the whole phenomenon of The Nerd. The book, while sometimes funny, is often a dry read (big surprise). In true nerdy fashion, he chronicles the history of the nerd stereotype – he of the high-water slacks, thick glasses, pocket protectors, and obsessional attention to details.  He even sends up the pop culture fad of “nerd hipsters,”   those “too-cool-to-care-about-fashion” young creatives who embrace the look and ethos of nerdiness.

This last part was scary to me. Am I merely a nerd  hipster, with my thick glasses and obsession with adult animation? As a kid who came of age in the dark ages known as the ’80s, the worst thing I could think of to be called is a poser. As a former junior-high nerd who never quite grew out of it, I remain out and proud. But is my “geek cred” for real? I’ve gotten in fights over minutiae in “Futurama” episodes. I wear thick (really thick) glasses because I need them to see. When I see a sign proclaiming, “Jesus Saves,” I instantly complete the sentence: “and takes half damage.”

So if being a nerd isn’t so bad, why have we been so excluded and marginalized? Nugent explains that it because of a cultural belief that rationality and emotionality are separate and mutually exclusive. If nerds are super-rational, even machine-like, they must not be able to experience emotions. This is obviously BS, but it pervades the context of nerd-dom. And brings me to my next book:

The Decline of Men: How the American Male Is Tuning Out, Giving Up, and Flipping Off His Future” by Guy Garcia. I have seen an astonishing number of articles and books about this very topic. Without exception, they all blame feminism to some degree. But Garcia’s book takes pains to point out that it’s not feminism’s fault, and that it would be unmanly to lay the blame on anyone else.

As the mother of a young man, I was interested to see this Guy’s take on the situation. And the situation is not good: over 80 percent of suicides are committed by men, men account for the vast majority of those behind bars, etc., etc.

I will admit now that I only got halfway through this book. It started out admirably enough: it seemed to me that Garcia blames both the media (which actively promotes self-indulgence to  men at the same time they offer no truly mature role models) as well as what he perceives as a cultural neglect of boys. I can agree with him on the first point; it is nearly impossible to find a man on television who isn’t immature, stupid, or just plain idiotic.

But I’m not so convinced that our culture has neglected boys in favor of girls. While it’s true that most special-ed classes are dominated by boys, and it’s mostly boys at the lower end of the GPA bell curve, I don’t see this as neglect. We are only now coming out of a long era where girls were not encouraged or even offered the opportunities routinely afforded boys in the educational realm. Once girls were given some of the same attention and encouragement, they naturally began making gains. Boys, being petrified of being “beaten by a girl,” simply withdrew from the educational system. This is a profoundly self-destructive behavior, which explains a lot of the other malaise Garcia is writing about. Despite how negative this is, our culture actively promotes this attitude: anything overly intellectual is derided as somehow “unmanly.” Don’t believe me? Just look back at the Bush administration.

And let’s not forget that while women may be the majority of those earning B.A.s, it is still men at the top in most of the companies those educated women will work for.

As I said, he has a lot of good points, but not enough to fill 320 pages. About halfway through, it seemed like I was reading the same information, reworded, over and over again. I also take issue with his over-reliance of studies purportedly showing the vast differences between men and women. From his point of view, it’s almost as if we are two completely different species. He never even mentions the bedrock scientific truth: men and women are more alike than we are different. And perhaps that is why men are having such a hard time succeeding in any realm where women exist: that is, everywhere.

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