Geek Wisdom, edited by Stephen H. Segal


Computer nerds are our titans of industry; comic-book superheroes are our Hollywood idols; the Internet is our night on the town. Clearly, geeks know something about life in the 21st century that other folks don’t—something we all can learn from. Geek Wisdom takes as gospel some 200 of the most powerful and oft-cited quotes from movies (“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”), television (“Now we know—and knowing is half the battle”), literature (“All that is gold does not glitter”), games, science, the Internet, and more. Now these beloved pearls of modern-day culture have been painstakingly interpreted by a diverse team of hardcore nerds with their imaginations turned up to 11. Yes, this collection of mini-essays is by, for, and about geeks—but it’s just so surprisingly profound, the rest of us would have to be dorks not to read it. So say we all.

Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture is a collection of mini-essays written by N. K. Jemisin, Genevieve Valentine, Eric San Juan, and Zaki Hasan. It was edited by Stephen H. Segal.

With such a diverse team of writers, I was happy to see the emphasis on positivity and inclusion present in Geek Wisdom. It highlighted the positive elements of geek culture that we can all learn from, while gently reminding us that we still have a ways to go. Each of the 200 or so mini-essays takes a popular movie, game, book, or TV show and examines what made them so impactful and enduring in our collective conscious, as well as what nuggets of wisdom can be gleaned from them.

For a book that’s less than 250 pages, 200 mini-essays was a lot. No idea is discussed for more than a couple pages, which was something of a double-edged sword: It was easy to pick up the book and start reading without commitment, but it was just as easy to set it down.

I did appreciate the extensive footnotes on geek history, though. For instance, did you know that Superman: The Motion Picture (1978) was the first time Lex Luthor was portrayed as a businessman? Or that Mario was originally called “Jumpman” and was actually once portrayed as the villain? These little fun facts were sprinkled throughout the text and my inner trivia nerd loved them.

One unfortunate aspect of geek culture is that it tends to be considered, to put it bluntly, white and male. I don’t believe that’s actually true, but there is unfortunately still a very real problem with sexism, racism, and an “us vs. them” mentality present today. Geek Wisdom felt like it was primarily written to nudge a few of the less open-minded geeks towards wisdom through the lens of their favorite franchises. So you could say this is a highly political book. Rather than trying to make their arguments themselves, the authors are simply pointing out the wisdom to be found in geek classics all along.

There’s a central dilemma they deal with: Because most geeks have, historically speaking, generally identified as outcasts on the margins of society, they often have trouble understanding that it’s possible for some geeks to be marginalized even within geekdom due to other qualities of identity, such as gender, race, and class.

Of all the points that stood out to me in Geek Wisdom, one of the most memorable was how we interpret strength. There’s a trend in geek culture to look down upon physical strength, prioritizing wits and intelligence. And that’s a perfectly valid set of priorities, but not the only one.

We all tend to believe that our own best characteristic represents “true strength,” just as we’re all instinctively inclined to believe that a person who agrees with us a lot must be a very smart person indeed. Therefore, as intellectuals, we find physical force abhorrent in the extreme, in part because it just plain is, but also in part because our self-esteem depends on believing that mental power is more important.

I could go on and on with relevant quotes from the book. It’s one of the most quotable books I’ve ever read. Instead, I’ll close with one last quote that I feel best encompasses the message of Geek Wisdom:

We geeks all share an important trait. It’s not just that we can imagine—everyone can—it’s that we’re not afraid to.

We geeks are not afraid to imagine new worlds, from the far past to the distant future, full of magic and impossible technology and societies entirely unlike our own. So why not imagine a better version of our own world?

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