A couple of months ago I got into a heated discussion with some friends about what qualifies someone as a “nerd” This is something I’ve debated with other friends as well, mostly ones who would either be classified nerds but would also proudly claim the title as their own. The difference about this particular conversation, however, was that I greatly disagreed with one of my friends on what she said made a “nerd.” In sum, she described a nerd as someone who is socially awkward, gets uncommon references, is good with math and computers or things like that. I admit that there are specks of truth to what she was saying, but after debating it for a few hours, we still ended agreeing to disagree.
Well last night I downloaded Travis Prinzi’s Harry Potter for Nerds: Essays for Fans, Academics, and Lit Geeks. I was particularly excited about reading it because I’d used one of his other books as a reference for my thesis on language and perspective for the Harry Potter series and found it enlightening and incredibly applicable to what I was writing about. So after finishing the most recent Dave Sedaris novel, I clicked on Prinzi’s book, starting with (as collections do) the introduction. And it was here that I stumbled upon this quote:
“But I’m noticing, with many others, a cultural shift in the perception of nerds, geeks, and dorks. J.K. Rowling followed up her comment about ‘obsessives’ with this:
And I did think if people like [Harry Potter] they would probably like it obsessively. I just never…but I thought that it would be am obsessive few—I never guessed it would be an obsessive many, as has happened.
The ‘obsessive many.’ What a great phrase. Notice the set-up: ‘It would be an obsessive few’; in other words, a small gathering of nerds. It turns out there are a lot of us. And much like Harry discovered wizard status from Hagrid, many of us have discovered our nerd status from Harry.”
And I know that, at least for me, this is true. I started reading Harry Potter at the age of 12 and became one of the obsessed. In addition to writing a Master’s thesis about it, I presented on it at multiple conferences—one of which was in Orlando at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Of course it wasn’t just Harry that did this to me. Growing up, I’d watched Star Wars and Monty Python with my family; when I was grounded, my books were the first to go since I was usually grounded because I’d been reading instead of doing chores or homework; I knew the combos to Mortal Kombat and where to find a whistle for Super Mario 3; I would play Legos forever or I would set up my stuffed animals in a mock classroom and play “school” on the chalkboard easel my stepdad made me.
But it wasn’t until I started relating to other Potter fans that I realized I could classify myself as a nerd. And though I proudly identify with this title, many would still disagree with me. Many of my friends might say that I am simply not deep enough into this subculture to be able to identify with it. Yes, okay, there are thousands of references I will never get. Any day I don’t spend on Reddit will prove that. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t fall somewhere on the spectrum between nerdy and non (notice I don’t say nerdy and cool, because I don’t believe that those are always opposites).
I agree with Prinzi. There is a cultural shift in the perception of nerds and nerdy doesn’t necessarily mean uncool. The stereotypes that you see on Big Bang Theory do not accurately reflect all nerd culture. It has, in fact, become a spectrum, on which many can fall. And despite the efforts of those who have claimed this title for decades (I’m talking to you Firefly fans), it’s almost insulting to not only say that a nerd has to be antisocial, but that anyone can be nerd. These are the elitists, the purists of the nerds, if you will. But thanks to folks like J.J. Abrams, things like Star Trek are reaching a much wider audience. (We’re going to ignore his involvement with Disney’s takeover of Star Wars for now.) For example, my brother, Kirk, now gets why I’ve been calling him Captain his whole life.
And what about the internet? Yes, just all of it. Memes and LOL cats and Buzzfeed and an infinite amount of horribly amazing puns. It’s almost impossible to not be a nerd. So I want you to be careful before you dismiss the idea that the definition of “nerd” is expanding. I know plenty of nerds who are social and horrible at math. We’re simply outgrowing these clichés.To me, it just means that you are passionate about something that you can gush and talk about it for hours—whether the person you’re talking to shares that enthusiasm or not. So if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to go finish my leisure book with analytical essays about my favorite series of all time.