Thursday, February 2, 2012

Video Game Book Club: Geeks, by Jon Katz

Note: I THINK I just turned the comments field on. You can also email me:, and I'll throw up the comments in a new article. Tell me your experience with the book, or growing up geeky, or how And reminder: the next book is Smartbomb!

I first saw Jon Katz's Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho in my library in 2000. I was reading a lot about tech companies then, and flipped to the jacket copy, hoping it would be about a start-up. It wasn't. Just regular kids. I put the book down.

From a distance of 12 years I want to yell to my 23-year-old self to check that book out and read it, because it was talking about me. I didn't grow up poor in Idaho, like the two protagonists of Geeks, the electric Jesse and the quiet Eric. I didn't run away from a life destined for nothing to try my hand in a big city (in this case Chicago.) I wasn't involved in drugs or gangs, wasn't nearly as computer savvy as them, and (shocker coming up) wasn't as much of a gamer.

But I was about the same age. I moved to a part of the country far enough away from friends and family that I was on my own. And I found it almost comically hard to make new friends. Jesse and Eric had Richton Park, a Chicago exurb an hour away from anything. I had Norwalk, Connecticut, my first place on my own. Norwalk's a great town if you're rich and clubbing. it may be fine to raise a family. but for a young guy looking for other people his own age, it might as well as been Idaho.

So I spend a lot of time perusing the library, renting black and white movies, reading a whole lot, and going online to stay in touch with high school and college friends. And  I moved out after a year and a half that in retrospect I realize were the worst of my life.

Just like Eric and Jesse, and things got so, so much better with a new job, a new place to stay. I got the friends I was looking for. I met my future wife. I became me, instead of whoever I might have been id I stayed in Norwalk, boning up on nerdery and getting every sort of interpersonal door slammed in my face. Actually, no: the better door analogy would be a world where everyone was home, but no one answered when I came knocking. Still not sure if (this is the end of the metaphor, I promise) the people inside could hear me knocking or not.

Katz it perhaps too forthright in explaining how he grew invested in Jesse and Eric's lives. they were profiled in a local paper as ubergeeks. Katz visited them, and wrote about them for Rolling Stone. While reporting, he helped with some advice, and some money, enough to get them to Chicago. They needed jobs, had no idea if they could get them, but both found good-paying work. When you're 19, accomplishing all this on your own is life-affirming, life-changing, life-defining.

The second half of the book is given to two developments. First, Jesse decides to go to college, despite not being able to afford it. Out of a lack of understanding of the admission process, he chooses the University of Chicago (which might as well have a flaming moat around it), and chooses it months after their admission process is closed. Katz builds up the second-act tension expertly, using this event as an acid test for Jesse: will his drive and intelligence defeat the admission obstacle, or will the real world win, as it almost always does?

The other development has nothing to do with Jesse and Eric, but two other Midwestern high school geeks at Columbine High School. Katz finds himself a lodestone for stories about suffering outsiders, those who were picked on for being different, smarter, shy, themselves. After the shooting things got worse for many, who were branded potential shooters themselves. But the cathartic discussion ultimately seemed to help the geek society. Yes, there were lawsuits saying the doom made kids kill. But there were also denouncements against that type of thinking.

This is a short book, and even at 200 pages it includes two lengthy side-quest passages, one about Wired magazine and one about Columbine. But they both tie into Katz's grander story, how the new information culture has heightened the pocket-protector crowd. The Jock and the Cheerleader are in a decline comparable to American industrial jobs. The last decade of culture has been so geek-heavy, so many comic book and video games and science fiction on the big screen, that the subculture is now the plain old culture. Geeks takes us back to the turning point, showing how the writ-large changes of the world were bettering the lives of two kids who deserved better than what they were given.

Here's the new high school stereotype: there are jocks, and geeks, and the jocks are on their last four years of success. Once they graduate they won't play ball in college, maybe won't even get into college, and be a livelong disappointment. The geeks will go wherever they want, do whatever they want, and have happy lives. This may not be anymore true in a your-mileage-may-vary capability -- I've yet to meet a fencing athlete who wasn't an out-and-proud geek -- but this is the new expectation. And it wasn't like that when I was growing up. Katz's book is a Polaroid photograph of the change, the moment where society decided that being smart was something that would be rewarded.