The expansion of nerds: how HP made me realize I am one

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.”

27425And 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).Dr. Who snickers

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.


Don’t mind if I do…


9 Books that defined my childhood

Today in class I caught one of my students reading a book under the table. I had to ask him twice to put the book away since we were learning about say versus tell (obviously way more interesting than a book about the history of guillotines). I hated having to tell him to put the book away, because it is, after all, educational and we were just studying for things that will be on a test (and I hate testing). Not to mention that I was once that kid and I hated having my books confiscated, but I could never put the books away when the teachers asked me to. The student today wasn’t the first I’ve had to do that with. He’s the third this year and to be honest, I alm   ost wished it happened more often. What a wonderful world we’d live in where my main problem as a teacher would be asking my students to put away their library books. If only.

It made me think back to the days I’d hide my books under the desk or cleverly (I thought) behind another book. This happened often, because as I said, I was one of those kids and I read a lot. But of all the books I read, a few stand out as important to my childhood. So I decided to compile a list of these books. There are many others I also enjoyed reading as a child, but these hold special meaning for one reason or another. I have read all of these books at least twice.

1. Purple, Green, and Yellow by Robert Munsch purple-green-yellow My mom got me this book when I was in elementary school. It’s by the same author who wrote Love You Forever, which she used to read to me when I was very little. The book tells a story of a girl who wants the newest and coolest markers. The markers that are bright and vibrant, the markers that smell, the markers that never wash off. Each time her mother agrees to buy them as long as the girl colors on paper. Well we all know how tempting that deal is, and the girl eventually gets bored with the paper and turns body into a personal canvass. Problem is that she ends up coloring herself invisible. I think my mom may have been trying to teach me a lesson.

2. Thief of Always  by Clive Barker

The first sentence reads: “The great grey beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.” What more do you need? This books is one of few, if not the only, children’s book by Clive Barker, who is more commonly known for his adult horror fiction. A boy who is bored with life runs away to a magical, perfect land that turns out not to be so perfect after all. I read this book in 5th grade and it’s a bit dark for a 5th grader, but the story stuck with me for many years, despite the fact that I could not remember the title. And when I tried to tell this story to other people, they had no idea what I was talking about. Then one day in college, ten years later, I was telling my friend the story before class and he stated quite simply, “Oh, that’s Clive Barker’s Thief of Always. I love that book.” I immediately went home and ordered it and reread it again. It was just as good ten years later. movie_5620_poster 3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

I didn’t want to read this book at all, but my mom had read an article about it and wanted me to try it, so she used the 15 rule of our house. “You have to read 15 pages of a book you don’t want to read before you can say you won’t read it.” So I read 15 pages and by the next day I’d finished the second book and by graduate school I’d decided to base my thesis on the series. So obviously, it had an impact.

4. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Like any normal child, I read this book thinking it was the first in the Narnia series and later went back to read The Magician’s Nephew and others in the series, but wasn’t as impressed. The Lionthe Witch, and the Wardrobe was one of those books that made me want to believe in magic. It made me want to believe that whenever I opened my closet, I could go on an adventure. What kid doesn’t want that? Which brings me to my next book.

5. Matilda by Raold Dahl

Matilda appealed to me because I felt I could, or at least wanted to, relate to her. I wasn’t neglected like she was; I had a great childhood. But I was quiet and introverted and read a lot and I wanted to be able to control things with my mind because I was so smart. Turns out that I only thought I was smart, but a small hope always remains within me that one day I’ll be able to have powers like Matilda, because obviously that’s more realistic that Harry Potter (although I’d be ok with a letter from Hogwarts as well).

6. East of the Sun & West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

Apparently this story was adapted from a Norwegian folktale of the same name, but I am only really familiar with the Mercer Mayer book. My aunt, who is an art professor, bought this book for me when I was about 10. And yes the story was interesting, but not really anything spectacular or original. Was really captivated me with this book was the illustrations. I would spend hours and hours quickly reading the text and then devouring the drawings.  I don’t know why the images were so appealing, but I still remember them 15 years later.


7. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

Where to even begin. It’s an absolute classic. It made me realize that poetry could be cool and fun and that everything Shel Silverstein did was genius. I would gladly reread it again today. In fact, it’s sitting in my bookcase at home.

8. James and the Giant Peach by Raold Dahl When I was nine, my neighbor came to stay with us for a couple weeks because his mom was visiting family in Korea and his dad was stationed abroad somewhere. A few days after he came to stay with us, Hurricane Fran hit. That night, my neighbor, my little sister, and I were wrapped up in blankets on the floor of my parents bedroom and waiting for the storm to hit. We were incredibly scared and so my mom decided to read to us. She picked James and the Giant Peach up of the my bookshelf and just started reading. It was a welcome distraction because we needed something else to concentrate on and I was fully willing to concentrate on Jame’s problems rather than my own. Fran hit hard that night and we were without power for a while. But my mom continue to read the book to us and the story stuck.

9. Oh, Say Can You Say? by Dr. Seuss  

When I would go stay with my dad, he would often read me a story before bed, as dads tend to do. But I constantly requested this book. It was a book of ridiculous tongue twisters and I would make my dad read it again and again as fast as he could, because it was hilarious. Then he would make me read it and after a while, I just had them memorized. Now I use this book in my ESL classes because my students feel less intimidated to try something that’s meant to be nonsense, but it’s great for fluency practice. Not to mention that it’s still fun to read really fast.


“It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
― J.K. Rowling


Failing to Live

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

― J.K. Rowling