Reader survey: what is the great American nerd novel?

This year’s Pulitzer winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a candidate; it begins with an epigraph from Galactus, and there’s hardly a page without a nod to Marvel Comics, Tolkien, or Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Like the many Spanish words and phrases, the nerd content isn’t translated. The Spanish you can usually work out from context — but if you’re a little shaky on the Witch-king of Angmar, or what it means to have an 18 charisma, or if you’re familiar with the Watcher’s role monitoring the timestreams from the Blue Area of the Moon but forgot that his given name is Uatu, you’re going to miss a lot.

Austin Grossman‘s Soon I Will Be Invincible, subject of this blog’s inaugural post, is in the running too — it’s not really a book about nerds, like Oscar Wao, but a book which inhabits a nerdy genre, the brooding supervillain autobio, and makes an honest novel out if it.

I don’t think the answer has to has anything to do with SF — one can engage with the soul of the nerd without raising the topic of hit points or Darkseid. Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is devoted to the nerd’s characteristically fervent attention to minutiae (in this case, the minutiae belong to a fantasically detailed baseball simulation played with dice.) And probably no one has ever treated the toxic fury of the nerd gaze, directed at the jock, as well as Frederick Exley did in the USC sections of A Fan’s Notes.

You could also give extra points for novels especially beloved by nerds — who wins in that case, Neal Stephenson? When I was a young nerd it would have been Douglas Adams by parsecs and maybe that’s still true.

More nominations in comments, please!

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18 thoughts on “Reader survey: what is the great American nerd novel?

  1. Hmm, a very interesting question, here are some ideas. One candidate, if you want a book where the protagonists are computer nerds is Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs which is set in Redmond, WA, in the shadow of Microsoft. Perhaps stretching the notion of “nerd” just a bit, there’s Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations, which has the form of a “Great American Novel” with the main characters being scientists, computer programmers, librarians, and the like. DFW’s Infinite Jest is very nerdy on some level, but probably doesn’t qualify based on content.

    If you went over into non-fiction, I think Steven Levy’s Hackers is a classic account of early-vintage nerds at MIT and in Silicon Valley. For non-fiction beloved to nerds, one would have to mention Hoftstadter’s GEB.

  2. Also, thinking about this got the Arrogant Worms song It’s great to be a nerd stuck in my head. I justify sharing this on the grounds it’s the Great North American Nerd Song, or something.

  3. shiva says:

    greate article keep it up..

  4. Austin says:

    I’m afraid we have to exclude Adams as a Brit, if we’re truly searching for the Great American instance.

    The Stephenson oeuvre wrestles very directly with the role of the nerd in history, right? Everything post Zodiac revisits that problem in different ways, eg nerd as post-industrial hero, nerds in Sumerian mythology, nerds as secret heroes of WWII. But I’m not sure they’ve been taken up as subculturally defining works, except maybe the Diamond Age new-victorian/steampunk axis.

    I’d throw Fortress of Solitude in as a candidate, although surely anything post-2000 needs some seasoning. Microserfs is a fun book, but it reads to me as distinctively an outsider’s take on nerd language and culture – no one would mistake Coupland for a native. I think we’re forced to consider Neuromancer, but I think it reads as smart-but-dated now.

    For non-fiction, and Hackers and GEB are definitely flagship. We’ve already treated the Feynman question pretty fully.

    I feel there are still

  5. Austin says:

    …things we’re missing. Maybe more seventies-era SF?

  6. Em says:

    What about Little, Big? Maybe that’s a girl nerd book. And for all I know John Crowley could be a Brit too — or even from Watertown : )

  7. Some non-sci-fi suggestions:

    Ineligible if you’re only looking for American authors, and perhaps not quite a nerd novel so much as a warning that if you gaze too long at the nerd he or she gazes back into you, but …

    .. how about Foucault’s Pendulum?

    Also ineligible, and committing what may be the heinous sin of using the word “football” to refer to a sport primarily played by kicking said ball: Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is in its way a novel of sports-nerddom.

  8. Xander Faber says:

    Is there any case to be made for the novel “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell” by Susanna Clarke? It’s a modern novel written in the Victorian style, and it addresses the question of pure vs. applied wizardry.

  9. Austin says:

    Two last points:

    – Can one consider Ender’s Game? Not because it’s the greatest of novels, but because it crystallizes a nerd fantasy so completely.

    – The Great American Nerd Novel (or GANN) probably hasn’t been written yet, but it’s apparent that a new generation of authors is trying to write it.

  10. JSE says:

    Great stuff! A few comments: Hitchhiker’s Guide is indeed British, but I have some vague feeling that this only adds to its strength as a signifier of nerdiness for Americans. So if “American” modifies “nerd” rather than “novel” I think it survives. (Do British non-nerds read Douglas Adams? My guess is yes!)

    I still say Coover beats Hornby for treatment of sports-nerdiness, but toomuchcoffeeman’s suggestion does bring to mind High Fidelity, which does a really terrific job with rock-nerdiness.

    Ender’s Game is right on, for the reasons Austin suggests. The later Stephenson books sound like they’d be right on, but actualy I didn’t read anything after Snow Crash, which I thought started well but had about 200 too many pages of car chase and fight scene in it. Austin’s description kind of makes me want to try NS again — should I?

  11. Austin says:

    I cannot be stopped from commenting!

    Here’s my case for NS. (Not that I’m not a fanboy – I couldn’t make it through the Baroque Cycle, and I don’t think Anathem was a success.)

    There’s a visible, active thought process taking place in his writing. After Snow Crash, he could have been the wacky-cyberpunk guy forever, but he picked up and made another, more sophisticated cut at some of the same questions in Diamond Age. And again in Cryptonomicon, and (what I read of it) Quicksilver.

    And, per page, a lot of thinking takes place in his language, the way his sentences wrap around complicated objects and thoughts. I’m not saying NS doesn’t have glaring weaknesses

    So – unequivocal recommendations for Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon (which is not technically SF anyway).

  12. Austin says:

    Also my favorite quote about adult geekdom comes in the middle of Cryptonomicon, as they gaze at a bunch of grown-up Magic: the Gathering players:

    “It was pathetic when they were in high school,” Randy says. “Now it’s something else. Something very different from pathetic.”
    “What, then?”
    “I don’t know. There is no word for it. You’ll see.”

  13. rmb says:

    Xander, “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” is a fantastic novel, but I don’t think it dominates the headspace of most nerds the way Hitchhikers or LotR did (and still do, to some extent). “Stranger in a Strange Land” is still extremely influential, although IMHO it wasn’t Heinlein’s strongest novel, but it’s also a generation ago (although I really think mathematicians should use the word “grok” more). Speaking as the former president of a college science fiction society, Neil Gaiman’s stuff is big, but there’s a lot of splintering, especially between people oriented more towards novels (sf vs. fantasy vs. spec fiction) and people oriented towards games/anime/movies/tv/comics.

    GEB is fantastic, but it’s mostly beloved by the cs/math types, not the writing majors who also populate sci-fi societies. Similarly with Neal Stephenson’s stuff (personally, I don’t care for Stephenson’s novel-writing, although he writes brilliant set-piece scenes and throws out ideas at a dizzying pace).

    Actually, if I had to pick a canonical modern nerd text, I think I’d pick xkcd (for the uninitiated, xkcd is a webcomic drawn by Randall Munroe). In the nerd circles I’ve been part of, it’s become a part of the basic vocabulary, and some of my friends mutter about having to read it just to understand the conversations around them.

  14. Dear Jordan,

    I don’t know to what extent Australia serves as a proxy for Britain,
    but I think Hitchhiker’s was pretty widely known (due in part to
    a TV adaptation that showed in a pretty canonical time-slot for
    pre-teens — the one usually filled by Dr. Who, if I remember correctly —
    every weeknight at some point in the 80s). On the other hand,
    it certainly was a canonical text among Australian gamers, as were
    the books of Terry Pratchett (although I never read them myself).
    Lord of the Rings was also a favourite among gaming types, of course.

    Does Michael Chabon (or rather, do his novels) fit into your search category at all?

  15. I think it really has to be Lord of the Rings, even though not written by an American. Even with the wild success of the movies (which I own…) , there is still a clear dichotomy between people who can actually read and enjoy these books from start to finish and those who can’t bear all the hobbit history, corny songs, Tom Bombadil, and so forth. (I skipped the elvish poetry. We all have our limits, even when it comes to nerdiness.)

    I also want to second the nomination for Ender’s Game, which is perhaps the novel that taps most directly into the fantasies and anxieties of the socially awkward, intellectually precocious preteen.

    Remark aside: the latest Futurama DVD is entitled “Bender’s Game” and is also a sort of ode to nerdiness in general and D & D / LOTR in particular. (But nothing to do with Orson Scott Card’s novel.) I thought the animation was fantastic, the story was okay and the characterization was unusually weak…

  16. John Cowan says:

    Grandpa is a bit older, and thinks of Children of the Atom, by Wilmar Shiras (which came out in 1953 when even Grandpa was a mere gleam in his parent’s eyes) as the Great American Nerd Novel, the more so because it is not a novel at all but a fix-up of a bunch of short stories. It’s a sort of X-Men prototype with super-brains instead of super-powers, but notable because the viewpoint character is the Professor Xavier role — and he’s not himself a mutant of any sort.

  17. […] be considered good representatives of such uses. Even though the discussion is old (back in 2008 at Jordan Ellenberg’s Qomodocumque blog), we can continue it […]

  18. Hey, great blog! I’m working with pop culture and nerd genres in literature, and this post has been really helpful. I compiled a list from all suggestions in the post and comments and posted on my blog (hope it’s OK – all credits and links are there).

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