Dear Benjamin

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for spending the day with us at Titlepage.

Two questions occurred to me when I was watching your segment on Episode #6.

Question #1

On Titlepage you advanced the fascinating idea that, while by no means completely synonymous, “nerd” has long been a vernacular, or folk, diagnosis for some people who, we now determine, fall somewhere noticeably on the Autism continuum.

Assuming this is true, could you talk more about what you think the social and cultural ramifications of this are?

Question #2

You talk about how the ‘80s were a turning point for the advent of, let’s say, “nerd respectability,” and in your discussion you mention several movies -- comparing, for instance, Jerry Lewis’ “The Nutty Professor” (1963) with “Rain Man” (1988) for which Dustin Hoffman won an Academy Award.

Could you also speak about about "Revenge of the Nerds" (1984) and what role that very popular movie played in the cultural emergence of the nerd?

Kevin Longrie's picture

I loved what you said about

I loved what you said about hip-hop. There's a theory, and not my own, that Regan invented gangster rap. The positive messages and the social consciousness that populates so much of early rap gave way to materialism and gentrification in the same way that the country shifted. It's strange, actually, to follow the same thing happening in French hip-hop right now. It hasn't begun entirely, but there are a few groups that are moving away from the meaningfulness of the old school, which is still very much alive in France, and with Sarkozy, moving to materialism. Instead of "I came from a poor town and I want to help give back," rap on both sides of the atlantic is becoming (or in the U.S. case, has been for some time) "to hell with my home town because now I'm rich and that's what's important."

Just something interesting.

Anyway, as far as questions go, I have a pretty broad one. What kind of research did you do for the book, and when did you know you wanted to write a book on this subject? You weren't really able to go into it in this episode of titlepage, so I just wanted to know where this book came from I guess.

Kevin Longrie's picture

Sorry, I just reread my

Sorry, I just reread my comment. It's a little unclear. I meant with the election of Sarkozy, the country has shifted to the right, and so to with it, hip-hop seems to be becoming more concerned with material wealth than positive change.

Dan's picture

Benjamin--I'm just curious

Benjamin--I'm just curious as to the effects that writing and publishing this book have had on your life as a nerd, semi-nerd, former nerd, never-really-a-nerd, and/or human being. Also, did you detect any nerdiness in any of the presidential candidates before--and after--the field was narrowed?

benjamin's picture

Hello you all, just woke up

Hello you all, just woke up here on the West Coast.

So, Gregory Knapp, re Question 1:

The big question regarding nerdiness and the autism spectrum is, should you diagnose a nerdy kid with high-functioning Asperger's? Some psychologists say that you should almost never tell, say, a teenage science wiz who's not very social and can't pick up social cues that he has Asperger's, because that's effectively stigmatizing his healthy behavior. Others say that you should, that most professors at MIT probably have Asperger's, and that the kid should be diagnosed with it and proud to be an "Aspie." Those latter psychologists say you have to de-stigmatize Asperger's itself. It's one of those case-by-case problems, obviously, but I tend to sympathize with the psychologists who are reluctant to diagnose. How can you tell if what appears to be a hard-wired neurological tendency isn't created by temporary social conditions, ie if the kid is depressed because he/she has no friends, for example? I'm a layman, and my romantic notion is that people change suddenly and unpredictably.

benjamin's picture

Re Gregory's Question 2: The

Re Gregory's Question 2:

The image of the nerd that Revenge of the Nerds used was very similar to the one Saturday Night Live had popularized with the nerd sketches in the '70s. But that movie is interesting because it pits nerds and black people against the popular white kids in the jock frat. Basically, the nerds get themselves sponsored by this fraternity organization run by black lawyers, and the black lawyers and the nerds team up to overthrow the jocks. The suggestion was that being a nerd was kind of like being in a historically oppressed ethnic minority.

Zibbie's picture

Hi Benjamin, I really

Hi Benjamin,

I really enjoyed your discussion of your book. However, I noticed that most of the examples you discussed were male. In your researches, can you make any broad statements about the gender breakdown of nerds and dorks? I know that autism tends to be more prevalent among males, so do you think "nerdism" is as well?

And, is it more acceptable to be male and a nerd or female and a nerd? Are there successful female nerds in your opinion that contribute to the popular culture perception? To me, it seems like the types of behavior you describe nerds engaging in would be seen as even odder in a young woman or girl - who is "supposed" to be more social, engaged, and emotional.

Any thoughts? Thank you!

benjamin's picture

To answer Kevin's

To answer Kevin's question:

When I was a universally despised nine year old, I wondered how this category "nerd" I'd been placed in was created. I fantasized about writing an explanation.
But the immediate genesis came when I ate lunch in midtown Manhattan at a place called Uncle Vanya's, with my sister, the playwright Annie Baker (everyone should catch her play Body Awareness at the Atlantic Theater this month, which is about a lesbian couple with a son who might have Asperger's). We were talking about how we were both fascinated with nerds, and she said, "You should write a history of the nerd."

I researched the book with a combination of journalistic interviews and academic library research. I also spent a lot of time hanging out with people from different nerd subcultures: high school debate, LARPing, etc.

gregoryknapp's picture

Benjamin Your point about


Your point about "Revenge of the Nerds" is well taken. I enjoyed that film (which I saw in the theater as a college student) immensely, and I think the plot point you focus on is one of the reasons it was such a clever and satisfying film.

Teaming up with the black fraternity was a great example of "creative" strategic thinking by the nerds (what we might now refer to as thinking outside the box). Accepting them was a great example of opportunism (again, in the best, strategic sense) on the part of the fraternity. And, as you point out, together they did indeed defeat the obnoxious "oppressive" white jocks -- to the great satisfaction of the audience.

benjamin's picture

Dan, I think writing this


I think writing this book did change me as a human being in that it forced me to become empathetic toward people who reminded me of those nerdy qualities in myself that I scrupulously tried to get rid of when I was a teenager. I think the hardest people to empathize with are people who have some tendency that you pounded out of yourself. As a writer of any kind (non-fiction or fiction) I think you have to be able to master that kind of empathy.

As for the presidential candidates, Hillary seems like she could have been a nerd in high school, because she's seems so strong on wonky knowledge and yet somehow stiff and a little closed off. But I think she's really more of a smart preppy (or at least when I was a kid and I would listen to my parents and their friends talk about what she was like in college that's what they said about her).

benjamin's picture

Zibbie, Nobody really knows


Nobody really knows the gender breakdown among nerds, but the English psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen, who plays Borat) has advanced a theory that people generally fall on a spectrum with E-brains (empathic brains) on one side and S-brains (systemic brains) on the other. People with Asperger's are far on the S-brain side. He says that more men have S-brains than women, and more women have E-brains than men, but both men and women fall all over the spectrum. He doesn't claim to know whether that pattern comes from nature or nurture or a combination or both.

I think girls are not allowed to be nerdy in our culture to the same extent boys are; we tend to drill nerdiness out of girls. They're generally expected to be better at picking up social cues and less isolated and obsessive about scientific or rational activities.

tizaine's picture

Benjamin, Mid-way thru the

Mid-way thru the book. Great job...and thanks for being online. So cool!
I am wondering: can you be a nerd and NOT be smart at all? For me "dork", for example, always sounded like someone who is actually stupid.

benjamin's picture

Tizaine: Hey thanks, glad


Hey thanks, glad you're into it.

Yes, I think you can be a nerd and not be truly smart. Mary Bennett in Pride and Prejudice is a good example of a nerd does not seem exceptionally bright. It's her drive to prove through her pedantry that she is smart that makes her a nerd. She's not attuned to what people actually want from her, to what would actually make them respect her.

JMW's picture

Benjamin, Two unrelated


Two unrelated questions:

It strikes me that the socially awkward part of nerdiness, as opposed to the more intellectual parts, for some people could just be a natural consequence of adolescence. Have you found that many people "outgrow" nerdiness, and might this be another reason not to jump to "diagnose" people too soon?

And do you have a favorite fictional nerd in cultural history?


Paul's picture

Thanks for this interesting

Thanks for this interesting discussion. In relation to your book and to the questions, implicit here seems to be the big question of anti-intellectualism in the U.S. (i.e., those who create and wield the category of "nerd"), which I think overlaps with the gender issue, obviously. Is anti-intellectualism, though, also coupled with concepts of "style" in order to isolate the nerd of whatever genre or ethnicity? Is anti-intellectualism itself the dominant social style for our culture?

In general, I was wondering about your comments on those that construct the "nerd" category and its uses, other than the most basic of simple domination.

Odile's picture

Benjamin,This a


This a non-literature question/personal: now that you've become the "poster child" for nerdiness, are you actually feeling less of a nerd, or more of a nerd? The reason I ask is that I am assuming that you've never met as many nerds as you have now....are they really your people?

benjamin's picture

JW, The socially awkward


The socially awkward part of nerdiness is a phase for some people and a permanent state of affairs for others. The reason many psychologists are reluctant to diagnose nerdy kids with Asperger's syndrome is because it's very hard to tell by spending time with a kid which one is going to be the case. And if you do misdiagnose, that's a pretty serious misdiagnosis. Telling nerdy kids that their social antennae are never going to be like everybody else's is a great way to make them paranoid, self-flagellating, despairing etc. I for one think it would be have been destructive if somebody had told me I had Asperger's sydrome when I was 13. I don't have Asperger's, but you sure could have made the case that I did back then. As it turned out, my nerdiness was temporary rather than neurologically hard-wired. But the other side of that is that kids who do have Asperger's shouldn't be made to think there's something wrong with them. Those kids should be taught to embrace the way they are, find ways of using it to their benefit etc. So it's tricky.

My favorite nerd in cultural history is Wodehouse's Gussie Fink-Nottle, who is obsessed with newts.

GK's picture

G.K. Kalyanaram Hello

G.K. Kalyanaram

Hello Benjamin --

Would you agree that any implication that conservatives are not thinkers is not factually correct? Think Edmund Burke or Abraham Lincoln and many more. Many poets (across many societies) have been conservative, sometimes downright even feudal.

Or that American society does not value serious intellectual output? Think of a $13 trilion economy fueled by creative innovation after innovation or the marvelous educational system or the remarkable resiliency of the polity, economy and culture of the society. [Even in literature, the U.S. is the home to the largest number of nobel laureates.]

Given these facts, what in your opinion explains the common societal misimpression? There is obviously some cognitive framing issue.

Thank you for your time.


Mercer's picture

Just wondering about how you

Just wondering about how you write ... do you use software, if so what is it called?

benjamin's picture

Paul, The contemporary


The contemporary concept of the nerd is very similar to the concept of the "greasy grind," which was arguably perpetuated for purposes of cultural domination in the progressive era (late 19th early 20th century). When immigrants (largely Jewish) began to study their way out of inner cities into elite American universities, previously the domain of the protestant establishment, they well-rounded WASPs began to create a distinction between athletic men of character and the less physically vital students who studied too much. Grade-grubbing became unfashionable; valedictorians were not let into senior societies at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton as much as they used to. And guys like Endicott Peabody, the founder of Groton, said things like, "I don't like boys who think to much."

Socially excluding people on grounds of nerdiness can still function as a way of trying to limit the upward mobility of the most determined students. If you can't stop a kid from getting better grades than you, you can at least exclude him from the networking you do in your frat, country club, whatever.

benjamin's picture

I hope that at this point in

I hope that at this point in my life I don't have a people (a people defined by subculture or a people defined by ethnicity) -- but as a kid you don't really have a choice if you're put into a loathed category. You seek out your allies.

benjamin's picture

G.K., Of course there are


Of course there are conservative intellectuals and conservative poets. T.S. Eliot was both, and he is discussed in a chapter of my book.

I would say that American society values certain kinds of intellectual output more than others. Technological innovation certainly. Literature, sure, although not as enthusiastically.

That said, the deal with our educational system is that it's horribly unequal: rich districts have great public schools, poor districts have terrible ones. I think we betray nerds who weren't born with privilege in our taxation system. We need to start making rich Americans start paying for the public education of poor Americans. It's not your fault if you weren't born in a nice suburb with great teachers and new textbooks and computers.

gregoryknapp's picture

Benjamin: Where on the West


Where on the West Coast do you live?

Can you tell us something about the literary life there?

And, what has your book tour(s) told you about the current state of the literary/reading life in these United States?

Dan's picture

OK, let's focus even more

OK, let's focus even more clearly on what really matters here, as if this were Access Hollywood: celebrity nerds. You've mentioned Gates and (I think) Spielberg, but are there others who are famous, especially in show business, who you think may have an inner--or even outer--nerd? I mean, besides (as of now) you. Wallace Shawn?
And I really admire the Systemic/Empathic spectrum that you cite as having been set up by Baron-Cohen--it seems to me to be one of those measurements that is quite useful, even if, on close examination, questionable, or at least far more complicated than its two poles would suggest. Like porcupine and hedgehog or whatever that was, or Innie and Outie navels. (I always divide people into two groups--those who divide people into two groups and those who don't. No, seriously, I find it that I'm pretty good at distinguishing between those who have ever waited on tables and those who haven't.) My second question is this: Can't jocks be relentlessly Systemic--especially males? Peyton Manning?

benjamin's picture

Hey Gregory, I'm spending

Hey Gregory,

I'm spending more and more time in LA, but I still have an apartment in Brooklyn. LA is a highly literary berg in its way. That is to say, there a lot of writers here. The difference is that by and large they write for TV and movies. The New York literary world has one hierarchy of prestige and Hollywood has another. It's actually nice to be able to flit back and forth and be reminded that each one is local, its own contained little world. The biggest difference between Hollywood writers and literary writers (a sloppy categorization but let's go with it for now) is that literary writers generally see themselves as people who may have grown up in a certain amount of privilege but who have chosen a relatively ascetic path and are writing against some of the dominant trends in late-capitalist American culture; against consumerism, against the brutalities of the free market, against a status pyramid exemplified by say, Sex in the City. They tend to see themselves as having a sacred duty to guide people toward empathy and self-actualization and integrity and away from obsessions with things that are fundamentally superficial. I mean it's insufferable to say that aloud, but I think it's what people by and large believe. Here in LA, by contrast, I think most of the smart writers consider it their sacred duty to be funny. I find that you have to get to know someone really well before they'll break it down this way, for fear of sounding pretentious, but I think the idea is that if you're being genuinely funny you're probably in some way being a truth-teller, and often a de facto subversive in ways people don't even realize is subversive. George Saunders once said that humor happens when people get the truth more efficiently than they're used to getting it. So my favorite writers are people like Saunders who seem to feel that telling truth to power and being funny are often the same thing. I like to think of Saunders as the synthesis that grew out of the literature vs. Hollywood dialectic. He's very clearly influenced by the best of Raymond Carver and the best of The Simpsons.

benjamin's picture

Mercer, I use Word. Nerdy


I use Word. Nerdy question, dude.

Wes's picture

Hi Benjamin, I very much

Hi Benjamin,

I very much enjoyed your book, especially your material about "Freaks & Geeks", which was an under-rated show cancelled too fast. What is Paul Feig like? I read "Superstud" which is hilarious (have you read it?) and very intimate but I am wondering what he is like as a person. Also, if you don't mind, what is Mindy Kaling like? I am an aspiring television writer and both Paul Feig and Mindy are heroes (heroines?) of mine.

Thank you.

benjamin's picture

Dan, Sure there are famous


Sure there are famous people who are nerdy. Although I think acting is a pretty non-nerdy activity, certainly more of an E-brain one than an S-brain one. I think a lot of writers and directors are nerds. M. Night Shyamalan for example... There's something nerdy about the way he presents himself and yet he manages to be blindingly confident at the same time. He's a nerd who still takes over a room when he walks in. I think you could argue Coppola and Scorsese are nerds, the priestly kids in their Italian-American families, and both have major personal magnetism, for lack of a better term. I guess directors have to have it. But actors... Former nerds, but not so many current nerds.

A lot of famous people like to say they're nerds. Kind of like they like to say they eat junk food whenever they want.

Jocks are often highly disposed to be systemic. Football plays are complicated. What makes a jock non-nerdy isn't being E-brained or whatever, it's the ability to engage in physical confrontation and having a body that's a source of power and beauty rather than only pain and disease. It's funny you bring up Peyton Manning, I thought it was the other Manning that was the nerd.

KeiraSoleore's picture

Benjamin, jumping in here

Benjamin, jumping in here late in the conversation. It's wonderful to read about the anecdotal reporting and research that went into your book, as well as the E-S continuum. One comment about that is that sometimes, kids who are really closer to the E pole can come across as closer to the S pole in order to survive, almost like an outer S to help the inner E to cope.

Now that nerds have been rehabilitated and jocks have a cool factor anointing them, what about the dweebs and the dorks. Are they to remain at the outer fringes of the social fabric? :) Any other pieces of the nerdy pie?

benjamin's picture

Wes/Reardon, Paul and Mindy


Paul and Mindy are both by broad consensus two of the most gifted TV writers ever, and they're both funny in prose, too. They're also both classy as fuck. I stand there slouching over some impeccably chosen wine Paul has just given me, trying to smooth out my cowlicks, wearing a T-shirt I've owned since I was nine, while they talk about places in London I've never heard of. That is our relationship in a nutshell. If our clique of friends was The Sound and The Fury, Mindy would be Caddy, Paul would be Father, and I would be Benjy the mute manchild who rolls around in the dirt.

benjamin's picture

Keira, It depends on how you


It depends on how you define dweeb and dork. Those words are often used interchangeably with nerd, but how are you using them?

Lina's picture

Benjamin, You think you

You think you might try your hand at writing for TV or the theater?

benjamin's picture

Lina, Sure.



tizaine's picture

Benjamin, There is an

There is an obvious follow up to my first question -- and your response, but I won't ask it. ;-)

I have another kind of personal question: did your parents do anything special to end up with two very creative children? and did anybody in your family have Asperger that both you and your sister ended up with works tackling the subject?

benjamin's picture

Tizaine, Our mom would

Our mom would always praise us for spending a lot of time on something and working hard at it, and never tried to force us to be well-rounded. We never had to play sports, never had to devote equal time to subjects we weren't interested in, never had to pad our college applications with activities that looked good on paper. The message was always, I don't care if you go to an Ivy League school, or make a lot of money, I just want you to work as hard as possible on what you care about and do it with integrity. Our dad all but demanded a kind of verbal jousting, and gave the impression that even though he wasn't a writer, writers were the people he respected most. He also praised us when we expressed interest in smart movies and books and mocked us for liking stupid movies and book.

benjamin's picture

Oh and re the Asperger's

Oh and re the Asperger's thing, nobody in our family has Asperger's, but our mom a psychologist and Asperger's is her area of specialization.

tizaine's picture

Thanks! Your parents must be

Your parents must be incredibly proud. Their example will certainly inspire many parents who don't always trust that there may be "another way".

I trust and hope that you do like a few stupid movies, though.

Alia's picture

Hi Benjamin, You do a lot of

Hi Benjamin,

You do a lot of explaining of what a nerd it. I think most people I know h ave at least one nerdish quality. Is it possible to be a completely nerd-free person? Is that a desirable thing? Any examples.

nabujaber's picture

Benjamin, what’s the next


what’s the next thing you’re working on?


benjamin's picture

Alia, I think our president


I think our president is a nerdiness-free individual. Whether that is a desirable thing, I cannot judge. But I suppose for all I know, George Bush winds down by playing Worlds of Warcraft. Actually, we wouldn't know if he did. He could be on there all the time, talking in the headset, making friends.

I'm currently editing a short story that's going to be in the literary magazine Tin House this fall (my fiction debut). I'm also working on the proposal for my next non-fiction book, which will probably be heavier on memoir and lighter on history. But I don't want to jinx it.

I think writing American Nerd really made me thirsty to write a lot of fiction and memoir, because the most personal sections of it were the ones I liked writing the best.

gregoryknapp's picture

Benjamin: Can you say more


Can you say more about the LA writing culture/scene?

What about the underside?

I ask that because I know someone who writes movies screenplays, and who in fact has won an Oscar(tm) for screen writing (I am going to protect his privacy here)

Listening to him tell it, it's a pretty Hobbesian existence. It would be an exaggeration to say that winning an Oscar(tm) has made his professional life harder, I suppose, but it he paints a picture of a world of cut throat competition, envy, back stabbing, and general nastiness that would make me, at any rate, hop on the first plane back to Brooklyn if I had an apartment there waiting for me.

Have you seen or experienced this Dark Side of Hollywood?

benjamin's picture

Gregory, I am a nobody, so I

Gregory, I am a nobody, so I haven't experienced the cloak-and-dagger high-stakes aspect of LA. But New York journalism/publishing can be a pretty nasty little business. Living in Brooklyn is nice because it's easier to not think about Manhattan. I can't tell you how often I've seen the worst kind of screwing-over go down in New York. I know enough people in both worlds to say that they both house back-stabbers and are very competitive, but I don't get the impression one is worse than the other.

KeiraSoleore's picture

Benjamin, I'm an engineer by

Benjamin, I'm an engineer by education, so the words nerd and geek apply readily to me, so I look at them more in a positive light. :) The dork is someone who does silly things for silly reasons and the dweeb is someone who follows the dork. Now, none of these are freaks; pretty harmless folk all considered. How would you define the dork and the dweeb? Is there a more 21st century word for the nerd?

benjamin's picture

Interesting question... I

Interesting question... I think "geek" has gradually been replacing "nerd." "Nerd" almost has a retro feel to it. Interestingly, in my experience "tool" is popular with people my age (30) but it's actually an old term, older than "nerd." A guy who went to engineering school in the early 1960s told me "tool" was replaced by "nerd" in 1963.

Hey everyone, thanks so much for chatting with me, I've honestly enjoyed this a great deal.

gregoryknapp's picture

Benjamin: On behalf of


On behalf of Titlepage, thank you so much for spending the day chatting with us.

It was a great pleasure.

KeiraSoleore's picture

Thanks for making the time

Thanks for making the time to answer all our queries, Benjamin. I'll be sure to grab a copy of yoru book the next time I visit the bookstore. Thanks also to Gregory for modding this discussion.