Since being a nerd has become cool I don’t like it any more. Big glasses are no longer the indicator of a visual impairment caused by too much reading, and pasty skin is less likely caused by long hours spent in libraries, archives or labs. It’s more likely the result of an overpriced holiday in Finland and cleverly applied make-up.
It is now socially acceptable, even hip, to be seen sitting by yourself in a murky café reading Camus. It is even more so if you’re wearing a baggy jumper you found in a charity shop, while frantically scribbling notes into your Moleskin notebook or are indeed staring into your MacBook. Not even questionable personal hygiene or unkempt hair are a safe indicator that the person next to you is a borderline genius.
On the other hand, real nerds are now heading to the gym to fight the pen pusher’s wobbly thighs and bingo wings, while buying the pretty plaid skirts and cardigans now cheaply available in American Apparel. So how am I supposed to tell them apart?
Chances are you will never know if someone is a real nerd until you have seen them walking into a glass door or actually had a conversation with them. In conversation, watch out for tell-tale signs: if the first association they make with the name ‘Churchill’ is that of a nodding dog in the back of a car, they might not be the real thing. If they can tell the difference between Thomas and Oliver Cromwell, you might be on to something.
But here’s the worrying thing: while more of us are pretending to be nerds, fewer of us actually are. Two stories made the news this week. The first told us that our maths skills are so appalling they’re costing the economy billions. The second revealed that 18 per cent of adults in the UK have never read a physical book. Admittedly, there was a social subtext to the story, showing a shocking class divide when it comes to reading, with those living in the most deprived areas also being deprived of education.
I suspect most of the pretending is done by the middle and upper classes though, where it seems to be more important what you are seen to be doing than what you are actually doing or who you really are. We might look like Einstein, but we are no good at maths. We might buy Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, but it’s no good if we only use it to prop up the telly.
It might just be that the whole nerdiness thing is no more than fear of our own inadequacy. If we all try to look cleverer than we really are, then maybe we are scared that we are not really as clever as we should be. So what’s the solution to our own cultural decline? It’s so simple. Pretend less, read more. Now, that’s really cool. And bring on the fake tan!