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Wednesday, June 16, 2004
Originally from NPR's All Things Considered (in an edited form), Friday, June 4, 2004
By Paul Ford
Some thoughts on geekery.
“Hey, read me some of your book,” said my girlfriend, and I knew I was in trouble. Because what I was reading was The Amber Spyglass, a fantasy novel by Philip Pullman. I got through half of one sentence, and she cut me off. “Who's Iorek?” she asked.
“He's a, uh, talking polar bear. In armor.”
“Ah. And what's he doing?”
“Well, he and these people who ride dragonflies are going to get into a gyropter and go to war over magic dust.” The look on her face when I said “gyropter” filled me with grim shame. And I hadn't even explained how nearly every human in the book has a magical animal companion.
Why are so many of the things I love so embarrassing? Computer programming, science fiction, blogging-every one of my passions is something to sneer at. You're supposed to not care, to just do the things you love and ignore public censure-but who doesn't know better than that? When I discovered computers, I used to hide the manuals, so that no one could see. From the age of 12, I knew it was better to be a cipher, invisible to my peers, with no obvious preferences, than to be known as a boy who loved fractals. The alternative was beatings, and spitballs. Now, when I meet strangers, I talk about anything but websites and sci-fi. I keep the topics urbane. Art, serious film, well-reviewed books.
There's something terrible about being judged by your preferences. I'm thinking of my friend Ken, who was reading Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections on his morning commute, and was so ashamed to be lumped in with all the other trend-conscious Corrections-reading subway riders, that he tore off the cover and blacked out the spine. He wanted to read the book without feeling judged. And he's right to be paranoid: I liked the Corrections, too, but if I'd seen him on the train, I would have rolled my eyes at yet another sheep who bought into the marketing. I'm a sneerer as well as a sneeree. I'm a hypocrite.
We're all ashamed, and probably all sneering. Everyone except for a minority of few very pure snobs has some secret media consumption habit that they don't discuss at work or at a party. That Justin Timberlake album, romance novels, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, the WB. Just because some of the characters in the books I like have horns and live in different galaxies shouldn't make me a social pariah.
That's why I was glad when a few weeks ago, another friend, a man in his 30s, emailed me a huge, involved invitation to his bi-annual Dungeons and Dragons competition. The invitation was peppered with pictures of monsters, and scrolls, and done up to look exactly like an ad in a comic book. He and his wife were going to decorate their apartment with a medieval theme, and everyone was going to wear cloaks, and twelve-sided dice would be tossed without fear.
I was deeply impressed to see someone so at peace with their inner dork, so open and unapologetic. It was inspiring. Of course, I didn't go, because I've never played Dungeons and Dragons. I mean, even I have some standards.