Bradbury Knew That Being a Nerd Takes Courage
“I’ve noticed a certain anti-intellectualism going around this country, ever since 1980. Coincidentally enough. I went to a Waffle House. I sat down, and I’m eating, and I’m reading a book. I’m alone. I’m eating. And I’m reading a book. This waitress comes over to me. ‘Whatcha reading for?’ Wow. I’ve never been asked that. Not ‘what am I reading,’ but ‘what am I reading for?’ Well, you stumped me. I guess I read for a lot of reasons. Then this trucker in the next booth gets up, stands over me, and says, ‘Well, it looks like we’ve got ourselves a reader.’ Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? I read. There, I said it. I feel better.”
– Bill Hicks, loosely quoted from his standup routine—minus the profanity and cruel comments about Waffle House waitresses
I think about Bill Hicks’ Waffle House story often. Standup comedians work on jokes, but Hicks worked on truth. He was always trying to get to the truth of something. Always. Nothing was just a joke. The “what are you reading for” bit makes me particularly sad, because it rings true.
I was a nerd growing up. (Some might say I’m still a nerd. That’s okay with me.) Among other things, nerds place a sacred value on intelligence. I loved role-playing games, and I loved chess. Both games required tremendous amounts of brainpower and creativity. Universally acknowledged fact: Stupid people can’t play Dungeons & Dragons. Not surprisingly, you could imagine the ridicule I faced when I carried my D&D Player’s Handbook around with me in sixth grade. A book I had lovingly read cover to cover, even the tedious addendum on spells, several times. My level 9 Paladin “Tarz” (not making this up) was my greatest achievement that year. And chess? While other teenagers were out partying in high school, I was at home studying the Grunfeld Defense for the next USCF tournament. An opening I still haven’t completely mastered.
What else? As a kid, I read comic books and went to comic book conventions. I read fantasy and science fiction novels. I went to computer camp. There, I learned how to move a turtle across the green screen using the Logo programming language. I was vice-president of the literature club and editor-in-chief of our poetry magazine. I cared about academics with an intensity that was tragically uncool.
Never been shoved in a locker? It does happen. I was also “pants.” Trust me. The locker is better.
The only thing I have no excuse for is my strange attempt to mix plaid and stripes in my fashion choices. To my peers, I apologize. Someone should have explained that to me.
I guess I understand why my classmates ridiculed my behavior. On an evolutionary level, they were trying to eliminate the runts in the pack, the weak and the strange. Being a nerd meant being socially awkward in front of pretty girls, and that gets the “survival of the fittest” instinct all riled up in teenagers. They want to destroy you.
But I survived. From my trial by wedgie, I developed a mutant power, a rare and precious form of intellectual courage. Here it is: I’m not afraid or ashamed to be smart. And despite my mild-mannered demeanor, I am absolutely unforgiving in the face of smug ignorance and willful stupidity. I am the spirit of nerd vengeance coming after those lazy C-students. I’m informed and that makes me a dangerous person.
Ray Bradbury understood all this. He was a nerd too. The glasses, the poor taste in fashion, I can sense my own kind. In his novel Fahrenheit 451, he writes about a dystopian future that continues where Bill Hicks left off. People are no longer just “put off” by someone reading in public. Reading is an affront to decent people everywhere. Books intrude and put unwelcome ideas into people’s heads. Books can upset simple minds. The books have to go. In Fahrenheit 451, the readers get shoved in the locker. Bradbury shows us a world without nerds. Fahrenheit 451 is also about the rebirth of intellectual courage. The story gives us heroes who stare into the flames and do not fear the fire. It’s an amazing book, and I’m excited for you to read it with me.
That’s the plan. The Big Read Dallas wants to have everyone in this city reading Fahrenheit 451. Or as I like to imagine it, we’re going to turn Dallas into a big fat nerd.
I’m in. I’m so in.
Personal agenda aside, I believe in the collective energy of a meaningful shared experience. We do this together, and it will make us a better city—the kind of city that believes in the power of creativity and brainpower to solve complex problems, a city that rejoices in truth, and does not indulge ignorance. Yes, all by reading a book. That may sound overly optimistic, but science fiction is an inherently optimistic genre.
A city of readers. There, I said it. I feel better.
David Hopkins is a member of D Academy and a regular contributor to D Magazine. He has also written comic books and graphic novels in a variety of genres. For 12 years, he taught English and Creative Writing at Martin High School where he served as a writing coach for interscholastic competitions. Visit his website: thatdavidhopkins.com