Friday, April 16, 2010

Nerds on Parade

I spent last weekend in DC attending the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH). I've been to many librarian and teacher conferences in my day, but this was my first academic conference. You know what I observed? We nerds may call ourselves by different names ("librarian," "teacher," "editor," "historian..."), but basically, we all look alike. And no, it isn't that we are all wearing high waters, white socks, and pocket protectors.

Some of us actually look quite hip. Women have tattoos on their ankles. Men have diamond studs in their ears or long hair pulled back in pony tails. Still, you can tell we are editors, librarians, professors. Not a soul at any of these conferences would be mistaken for a model or a movie star or an athlete (well, except that one author of mine who is a history professor but who really does look like he could fit into any one of these categories. He seemed completely out of place. People probably thought he was someone else's guest).

I was perfectly comfortable at this conference. I felt like I'd been gathering with all these people for years. I could have plucked people off the exhibit hall floor and plopped them down on the exhibit hall floor at the next meeting of the American Library Association or the National Conference of Teachers of Math (yes. I said math. I know people think there is a huge difference between history nerds and math nerds, but really, a nerd is a nerd), and nobody observing them would be able to tell the difference.

You can tell us editors, though. We're the only nerds in the world who are also whores, the ones shoving our cards into the hands of every nerd who walks our beat, asking "What's your specialty? Would you like to write a book or perhaps an essay?" I'm shameless, preying on the younger, less-experienced when I ought to let them keep their innocence a while longer. As I mentioned to my friend Bob, who is very familiar with these conferences and us editor-whores, a frog could hop into the booth, and I'd thrust my card into its hands and say, "Might you be interested in writing about blue frog migration in green frog territory?"

The professors, of course, are just as easy to recognize. They aren't whores. They are beggars. They want to know if they can get a free review copy of this or that book. They want to know if we'll publish their dissertation on the history of the shoelace from 1960-1961. I'm sure this was an extraordinarily significant period in the history of the shoelace, but when confronted with such a proposal, I (whore that I am, not likely to let any potential writer slip through my fingers) am likely to respond, "Well, we might, if you broaden it a little. Here's my card. Email me, and I'll send you our proposal guidelines." The thought bubble above my head reads, "Broaden it to, oh, maybe the entire history of fashion. I'm sure he can do that." A year later, I will get a manuscript with eight chapters on the history of the shoelace from 1960-61 and one chapter on the history of fashion as a whole.

You can tell why I fit in so well with all these nerds. As I wrote that completely facetious paragraph (which might be more representative of the truth than you think), I found myself thinking, "I wonder what the history of the shoelace is. How have shoelaces come in and out of style over the years? Were laces used on such things as corsets before shoes or on shoes before corsets? And then there are the big questions: are these really dumb questions? Are these things everyone already knows except me?

Nerds: you can dress us up, but you can't take us anywhere. We will always be embarrassing you with all our questions and obsessions. We will always drag you into book stores, be forever thrusting books at you, and be most comfortable when surrounded by other nerds.

13 comments:

Erica M. said...

You must be a different type of editor than I am. Instead of soliticiting works, I hide behind open Word documents hoping my empty jobs queue goes unnoticed.

knitseashore said...

Shoelaces, or Velcro? I smell a "History of Footwear from Ancient Times to the Present" in the air (bad pun). But maybe that's just me...

Susan said...

Nerds of the world! I love it. And you are so right. Most people think I am a librarian when they meet me. They weren't surprised when I worked in a bookstore. They are surprised now that I work in the civil service! you can take the nerd out of university/college/teaching sphere, but that odor of books still clings, doesn't it? There must be some kind of dusty/dazed look we all have, or maybe it's our hunched shoulders (from reading so much) and general of air of thinking about something, all the time....I don't know, what do you think? Is there a brand we should have? some clothing line - but no white socks or pens in pockets, please! - we could design, so we could make our millions dressing the self-aware book nerds out there, and retire to a life of reading? lol

PS I like your description of yourself as a book-pusher with your cards! that made me laugh!

litlove said...

This is hilarious and SO true! a colleague of mine once told me about a schools' open day the faculty hosted. He and a number of other members of the French department were sat on a line of chairs while the Head of Department gave a speech. The colleague sitting next to him leaned over and whispered 'Do you realise we are all wearing spectacles?' and he said he looked up and down the row and it was true: a long line of four-eyes. The navy and black clothing probably gave it away too!

And I was most certainly a beggar in my day - still am, come to think of it. Some jobs stamp your soul. ;-)

Stefanie said...

Thanks for the postcard :) And you are right about the nerds. Now that I have attended a couple librarian gatherings it is really obvious how nerdy we are no matter how techie or progressive, it's like we have "nerd" tattooed on our foreheads.

Bob said...

Dear editor-whore:
What do you have against the history of shoelaces? In my heyday, we once reprinted a dissertation entitled “Scatalogical Rites of All Nations. A Dissertation upon the Employment of Excrementitious Remedial Agents in Religion, Theraputics, Divination, Witchcraft, Love-Philters, etc., in all Parts of the Globe. Based Upon Original Notes and Personal Observations, and Upon Compilation From Over One Thousand Authorities.” It was a commercial success (of course, that was circa 1968).

Thomas at My Porch said...

This post had me chuckling in my cube. From the headline all the way through to the end it was hilarious.

Emily Barton said...

Erica, yes, that sounds very different from what I do, but I've discovered over the years that the word "editor" has many, many different meanings.

Ms. Knits, spoken like a true editor-librarian.

Susan, we could call the brand "NerdsRCool."

Litlove, oh yes, the spectacles are definitely a dead giveaway.

Stef, you're welcome. Maybe I'd gotten a closer look at some of the ankle tattoos, I would have noticed that they said "nerd."

Bob, ahhh for those good old days of publishing. I used to love to visit the backlist from time to time for such gems.

Thomas, glad I made you laugh.

Heather said...

Can we move next door to each other? I adore you. Either that or I'm totally tagging along to that conference with you next year.

Emily Barton said...

Heather, but of course you can move next door. You realize, though, that that means you will be living in a (lovely, I might add) church?

Jodie said...

See but humanities nerds are the cool nerds (I know I work in an IT company (not on the IT things) at the mo but graduated with a history degree - there is a very real difference between types of nerds :) I'm a total nerd snob.

Dorothy W. said...

Okay, I'm guilty of saying this way too often, but still ... read Nicholson Baker's novel The Mezzanine. The narrator gives all kinds of information about shoelaces -- a mini-dissertation, in fact. I'm not kidding.

Emily Barton said...

Jodie, maybe that's because the techies are really geeks, not nerds?

Dorr, yes, I do believe that Nicholson Baker is in the TBR tome solely because of you. Sounds like I should start with this one.