If you're seriously into reading, chances are, if you're not a nerd, then you've at least got some nerdy DNA somewhere in your intellectual genome. I know I do. But as a reader I sometimes feel like I'm being asked to identify with a hero who isn't nearly geeky enough — a hero with uncorrected vision and excellent orthodontics and really good hair. Sure, he's nice, but I doubt I would have wanted to sit at his table in the cafeteria in high school.
Aren't nerds sexy enough to be heroes? They certainly can be. Here are three novels featuring protagonists with above-average SAT scores, who would get your Star Wars references, and who would never beat you up and take your lunch money. Though they might, if provoked, correct your grammar.
Anybody who's seen an English professor at work knows that it can involve a lot of dry, dusty research. At least the characters in Possession, by A.S. Byatt, look good doing it. In one corner we have flustered, tweedy Roland Michell, a minor scholar of the fictional Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. In the other is icy, reserved Maud Bailey, who studies Ash's contemporary Christabel LaMotte. Roland and Maud make an odd pair, but together they unlock a textual puzzle that binds their two poets together through an unexpected romantic connection. It won't surprise you to learn that it also leads to some hot present-day action between Roland and Maud.
Snow Crash is the novel that announced Neal Stephenson's arrival as a major science-fiction writer with a stylistic flair that would, or should, be the envy of any literary novelist. It's a searingly intelligent and very funny vision of a disassembled future America divided into warring franchises strung out along an unending neon strip mall. Prowling the strip is our main character, the memorably named Hiro Protagonist, a clever programmer who's also handy with a pair of Japanese swords. He'll need those skills and more to fight off a rampaging computer virus that starts to infect people's brains as well.
Finally, meet Dunstan Ramsay: schoolteacher, scholar, war hero, nerd. Robertson Davies' novel, Fifth Business, follows Ramsay, and two other boys from the rural Canadian town of Deptford, as they make their way out into the wider world. Even as they find love, wealth, fame in measures far beyond their small-town origins, the men can never escape the deep mythological structures that control their lives. Only Ramsay, as an expert on the lives of saints, is properly equipped to read and understand their destinies as the archetypal stories that they are. That's some nerd power for you.
Nerdy adventures are a challenge for any author. They're action-packed, but it's intellectual action rather than the exploding-cars variety. It involves people sitting around typing and reading and thinking, and it takes a special talent to make those particular activities exciting. It takes a special reader to be excited by them, too.
Lev Grossman is the author of The Magician King, the sequel to The Magician. He is a senior writer and book critic for Time.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.