Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review - Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture by Stephen H. Segal, Zaki Hasan, N.K. Jemisin, Eric San Juan, and Genevieve Valentine

Short Review: Geeky movies, television shows, video games, books, and comic books provide the lessons that shape the lives of geeks.

With Form, Feet, and Legs
And Knowing Is Half the Battle
Billions and Billions

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full Review: Geek Wisdom is a cute and funny book that takes quotes from movies, television shows, books, songs, video games, and even internet memes loved by geeks and then expounds on the greater meaning that these snippets have for those in geekdom. Or at least the greater meaning that the quote has for the contributor who penned that particular entry. The material the quotes draw from runs the gamut from the classic to the contemporary, ranging from referencing the genius of 19th century inventor Nikola Tesla to the villainy of the 2007 video game character GlaDOS. Each quote is given a half-page to a page write up describing the context of the quote, and some moral lesson the author draws from it.

The quotes in the book are sorted into six loose categories: wisdom about the self, relationships, humankind, conflict, the universe, and the future, each with an associated "master quote" used to title the second. For example, the section about "wisdom about the future" is titled with the Carl Sagan quote "Billions and Billions" while the section on "wisdom about the future" is titled with the Zager & Evans lyric "In the Year 2525". There appears to be little rhyme or reason for why particular quotes were selected other than "the contributor thought is was a cool quote and it vaguely fit the category", but for the most part the quotes are memorable and the essays about them are interesting. The essay quality is somewhat uneven, however, which I suppose is par for the course for a book that resulted from a five way collaboration. The essays are not attributed to individual authors, so it is difficult to determine whose contributions were consistently good, and whose might have been regularly sub par. As an added bonus, most of the essays have a little footnote attached that gives a snippet of information tangentially related to the subject matter of the post. Given the typical geek's love of nerdy trivia, this little feature indicates that the writers certainly know their audience well.

The one problem I have with the book is that "memorable" doesn't necessarily mean familiar. Although the book is titled Geek Wisdom, and the references are all ones that I knew, for anyone who is not roughly my age (and thus not steeped in the geek culture contemporary to me), many of the references are likely to be outdated and alien. Aside from references to pop hits from the late 1960s, the book also has references to movies like Ghostbusters, a movie released in 1984, and Highlander, a movie released in 1986. While a good chunk of the current geek community is reasonably familiar with these movies (and the many other references from the 1970s and 1980s), these movies are twenty-seven and twenty-five years old. How long will it be before they fade into memory and geeks are not able to recognize quotes from them on sight? How long before a reference to Phil Hartman is met by the response "Phil who?" Will anyone remember Quantum Leap in the future, or will it be consigned to oblivion like Automan? And as a result, while this book is funny and interesting now, it seems to me that there is a good chance that substantial chunks of it will result in nothing more than head-scratching in ten years. On the other hand, references to I, Robot, and The Left Hand of Darkness are older than references to The Karate Kid, and are probably not about to fade from the collective geek consciousness any time soon, so maybe this concern is overblown.

While anyone expecting to get truly deep and profound insights out of Geek Wisdom is likely to be disappointed, the book does offer a collection of fun and witty commentary pieces about topics that are certain to be near and dear to a geek's heart. And of course, being geeks intensely interested in such things, there are sure to be debates and arguments over why certain quotes or references were not included, complete with Comic Book Store Guy griping. As a book written by geeks, for geeks, Geek Wisdom hits most of the right notes, especially if you happen to be the right age for all of the references. Overall, this is a great book for any geek to have on their bookshelf to turn to whenever they need just a little bit of inspiration.

Stephen H. Segal     Zaki Hasan     N.K. Jemisin     Eric San Juan     Genevieve Valentine

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  1. Quantum Leap was a great TV series, but I don't think too many people under 30 remember it.
    I suppose to be truly recognized by the geek community, you have to stick with the main geek genres, like Star Trek, for instance, a television series that crosses generations.
    But I'm betting that's in the book.

  2. @Julia Barrett: There is plenty of enduring "geek wisdom" in the book. But there is a fair chunk that will probably fall out of popular knowledge fairly soon. As I noted, if you are a person who is in the correct age range (which it seems I am) then most of the references will be familiar to you. If you are in your twenties now? Maybe not so much. I really like this book, and that is why this bothers me, because I fear it will become less amusing for geeks in a few short years.