Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them
by David Anderegg
(Tarcher, $24.95)

The first known use of the word “nerd” was harmless enough. The inimitable Dr. Seuss dropped it into a semi-nonsensical line in his 1950 children’s book If I Ran the Zoo: “And then, just to show them, I’d sail to Ka-Troo, and bring back an IT-KUTCH, a PREEP, and a PROO, a NERKLE, a NERD, and a SEERSUCKER, too.” Soon enough, though, “nerd” came to define something no kid wanted to be. Its actual definition has had shifting boundaries, says child psychologist David Anderegg. Today it connotes “some combination of school success, interest in precision, un-self-consciousness, closeness to adults, and interest in fantasy.” The lack of self-consciousness particularly unnerves other people, Anderegg says. It makes the rest of us feel obliged to keep informing the nerds that they’re nerdy.

Anderegg’s book is just the right kind of smart, said Rachel Hartigan Shea in The Washington Post. Its “breezy” tone strengthens the earnest argument at its core. To Anderegg, the nerd stereotype is not just a fleeting playground obstacle. It represents a particularly American strain of anti-intellectualism that has plagued the culture since Ralph Waldo Emerson endorsed the idea that Americans were “men of action, not men of reflection.” Even on the playground, Anderegg says, the nerd label remains potent enough to change the course of some children’s lives. This, in turn, may affect the nation’s capacity to compete in a global economy. “Consider this terrifying statistic” from Anderegg’s cache: In 2004, U.S. colleges graduated more sports-exercise majors than electrical engineers.

Parents apparently will need to play a major role in burying anti-nerd prejudices, said The Economist. Anderegg says he counsels the parents of his young patients that they can’t be mocking bright misfits while expecting good grades from their own children. He also tells “a funny and moving story” about trying to convince one stubborn couple that they needed to buy jeans for their teenager instead of exposing him to constant ridicule by sending him to school in tracksuit pants. Considering broader steps, Anderegg suggests that anti-smoking ad campaigns provide good models for what a pro-nerd marketing effort could achieve, said Teresa Budasi in the Chicago Sun-Times Web site. And how about offering more brainiacs the big-money scholarships that star athletes now get? “I’d say those are a couple of good places to start.”