I've been thinking about what it means to be a nerd. Not a nerd in the sense of being socially awkward (which I am) or being a good student (which I was), but it's current meaning. Somehow in the last few years, the word "nerd" has come to mean being a super-fan of something.
Originally it was kind of pop-culture oriented. You could be a comic book nerd or Star Trek nerd. But lately, it's been extended to any kind of particular interest (sports, cars, grammar). Nerd doesn't apply to what you love, but HOW you love - i.e. obsessively.
The internet of course has contributed to this kind of nerdism. It's much easier to find information on the thing you love and connect with other fans. More than that, it's possible to create content about the object of your obsession and actually build up your own fan-base around it. All this comes into play in Rainbow Rowell's delightful new book, "Fangirl".
Rowell is an author that many critics I admire have raved about. Her YA book "Eleanor & Park" is a big hit with critics, writers and teenagers, although not always with their parents. "Fangirl" falls into the category of New Adult, I guess, meaning that its main characters are in college rather than high-school, in that nebulous space between teenager-dom and adulthood.
The story follows Cath, who has just arrived in college with her twin-sister, Wren. Whereas Cath is an introvert, Wren is determined to have the full college experience, which means lots of alcohol and boys and less time with her twin. In particular, she has little interest in the world of Simon Snow, the hero of a fictional Harry Potter-like book series which has been Cath's obsession for years. In fact, Cath is a well-known-on-the-internet writer of Simon Snow fan fiction, in which she re-imagines the original books as a forbidden love story.
"Fangirl" traces Cath's family issues (her father is bi-polar and her mother abandoned her and her sister when they were young) and evolving relationships with the new people in her life. These include her prickly roommate Reagan, Reagan's easy-going ex-boyfriend Levi, and Nick, an attractive boy from her fiction writing class. There is no high-concept conflict here, just a very real exploration of what growing up means for Cath and her fandom (plus a totally adorable romance to root for).
The book alternates between Cath's story, excerpts from the Simon Snow books, and Cath's fan fiction. Rowell has a warm, accessible style full of humor and finely wrought characterizations. It's one of those books that you don't want to end because you enjoy the company of the characters so much. Particularly fun are the glimpses of Cath's slash fiction, which are no less engaging than the "real" Simon Snow excerpts (how I would love to read a full-length version of it).
You don't have to be a nerdy book lover to appreciate "Fangirl", but for those of us who often prefer a fictional world to the real one, it will especially hit home. The book evokes the dangers of forsaking real opportunities for the safety of a fantasy world, but it is also an unabashed celebration of the power of fiction and of fandom. Now excuse me while I go check out some Rainbow Rowell fan sites.