Growing up, I was never fond of being called a bookworm. And while Roald Dahl’s Matilda went some way to improving the reputation of young booklovers, no one wants to be likened to a slimy, brown creature that is at home in the dirt.
As I got older, it didn’t get much better, as voracious readers were more likely to be referred to as book nerds. This came at a time, during my early years of high school, when to be labeled as any type of nerd was socially poisonous.
And so, I surprised myself recently by feeling a little sense of pride when I described myself as a book nerd. Yes, I am so far removed from any pretense of coolness that I am now happy to describe myself that way.
But it’s not just me. It seems like somewhere along the line, it became ok to be a book nerd.
For some, being a book nerd became more than ok; it became cool. Earlier in 2016, USA Today claimed that the hottest new accessory was not an expensive handbag, but a book, after Reese Witherspoon, Lena Dunham, Emma Watson, Emma Roberts and Sarah Michelle Gellar used Twitter and Instagram to post selfies carrying books, accompanied by mini-reviews. In addition, Dunham posted reading suggestions on her online newsletter and Watson set up a feminist book club.
And then there was Natalie Portman, who said spoke of the value of reading books to her acting, ““I think it’s so interesting—how we don’t have to get trapped by our own conventions. I studied psychology in school, and the best psychology is in literature. It’s so much easier to understand a character than a theory. You can recognize yourself—or other people—in a different way.”
And Mr Darcy himself, otherwise known as Colin Firth, gushed about the impact books made on him.
“When I’m really into a novel, I’m seeing the world differently during that time – not just for the hour or so in the day when I get to read. I’m actually walking around in a bit of a haze, spellbound by the book and looking at everything through a different prism.”
Anyone who has attended a literary festival or author appearance will know that there are also many non-celebrities who wear their book nerd status with pride – a level of bookmania is apparent as readers queue up for the signature of their literary idols or as audiences sit in hushed silence in sold out auditoriums as their favourite writers offer a tiny glimpse into their mind and inspiration. Clearly, judging by the literary groupies, nerds can have the power to make the masses go weak at the knees.
But it might not have been the book loving celebrity or the literary idol who first made nerd-dom acceptable. The people who bear most responsibility for creating that shift might be a different type of nerd altogether: the computer nerd. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are just some of the tech wizards that have elevated the image of those who work with computers immeasurably. And at a time when computer nerds take up a significant proportion of places in the 2016 BRW Young Rich List, it would be impossible to use the term ‘computer nerd’ with any degree of ridicule. These and other technological superstars have inspired young people to confidently become computer nerds, too.
The change in our perception of the word ‘nerd’ is also evident in the world of children’s books, which are helping children reclaim words that were once considered derogatory. Consider the extraordinarily success of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, of which more than 150 million copies have been sold. And on any list of popular children’s fiction, you don’t need to look far to find the Dork Diaries series, which has also attracted sales well into the millions. It is a far cry from a time when I squirmed when referred to as a bookworm.
While the word ‘nerd’ itself has taken on a whole new life, the act of reading also appears to have improved its reputation among the cool kids. In the face of an increasingly fast-paced world, in which few readers get past the first paragraph of news article and messages are measured in characters, not paragraphs or pages, slow, quiet activities such as knitting, baking and reading have developed a new significance. These are activities which our grandparents might have enjoyed, but are no longer the domain of the lonely, old or infirm, but increasingly the preferred pastimes of hipsters. While technology has delivered a whole new world of convenience, entertainment and communication, these retro forms ways of passing the time are becoming more and more attractive as an antidote to the pace of change and engagement. And there are few activities that require the same quiet, sustained concentration as reading a book.
In this brave new world, book clubs are in vogue, hosted not just by Oprah and Emma Watson, but also by millions of mere mortals – more than 5 million Americans are thought to be part of book clubs, not counting the online clubs hosted by everyone from the Australian Women’s Weekly to Tumblr. The physical gatherings no longer consist of earnest discussions about various interpretations of the significance of Fagin’s criminality or Gatsby’s childhood. No, they are just as likely to include wine, cake and laughter, as book lovers argue about whether The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl was better. I wonder whether Oprah might have helped boost the reputation of the humble book club when she launched hers 20 years ago, or whether the change was already well and truly afoot.
So, let’s stand up and wear our status as book nerds with pride. At least it’s cheaper than a Chanel tote.