There are all kinds of nerds — book nerds, computer nerds, history nerds, science nerds, space nerds, sci-fi nerds, math nerds, even just plain nerd nerds — and the land of the literary has room for all of them. It helps that many books are pretty much by and for nerds. You know, those of us who’d rather read than… well, pretty much anything else, or those whose eyes light up at a mathematical problem as if it were a giant piece of cake.
Whether you’re a nerd for books, brains, space travel, or Boolen algebra, the one thing all nerds have in common is a love for learning, problems, and, just generally what I like to call “brain food.” That’s the thing with nerds, they’re all probably already reading heavily and relentlessly in their fields of interest. But every nerd ought to branch out, or just take the occasional breather from programming your PlayStation controller to turn on all the lights in your house and read books by and about other nerds.
These are the books, both fiction and non-fiction, that every nerd would get a kick out of, whether for the complicated concepts that get your brain going, or just to laugh along as you recognize your own nerdy tendencies in the lead character’s nerdtastic mannerisms. So, read on and stay nerdy.
The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas
Quantum mechanics, a bunch of brain-explosion-causing philosophy and theory, and a cursed Victorian novel. Yep, it’s nerdy. Then again, you’d probably know that the minute you realized the book’s hero is a Ph.D. student whose name Ariel Mantos is an anagram for “I Am Not Real.” Brain explosions, dude. Brain explosions everywhere.
The Unwritten by Mike Carey & Peter Gross
Literary nerds rejoice! Rejoice and prepare to find it seriously difficult to return to the real world after reading this series. This comic book series is so far from what most people think comics are about. More than just a bunch of literary references, this series takes actual literary characters and plots from classic novels and makes them real! In the world of The Unwritten every story that’s ever been written is actually real… and so are the villains, heroes, and literary tropes in them. The story’s heroes have to navigate this literary world using their own book smarts. So, basically, it’s every book nerd’s fantasy. Luckily there are 10 volumes to get through before you have to go back to life where stories are only in books.
Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson is sooo cool that he makes being a nerd cool. In Death by Black Hole he dares to take on the big scary questions of astrophysics for the lay reader, and he does it in that famous cool nerdy style he’s got. Nerds might even prefer to buy the audiobook, since deGrasse Tyson narrates himself… with that wonderful, slightly nasal, nerd voice of his.
The Hainish Cycle by Ursula K. LeGuin
OK, I’m totally cheating here, since The Hainish Cycle isn’t an official series of LeGuin’s books, so much as it’s a bunch of her novels all set in the same amazingly well-developed (like, “move over, Tolkien”) universe. The chronologically first book in the Cycle, The Dispossessed, is straight up nerdtastic. It toys around with cool political ideas and philosophies, and even brings in mathematical theory surrounding the invention of a device for instant communication. But if you read no other book in the series, you have to read The Left Hand of Darkness, which is one of the most famous sci-fi takes on a sexless society! Admit it, you know your nerd-o-meter just went completely nuts.
Babel-17 by Samuel Delany
A poet to save the world! For the language buffs among the nerdy, this is the book for you. A poet-linguist-telepath space captain saves a war-torn universe by deciphering a language that has some seriously powerful and strange effects on those who learn it.
What is Life? by Erwin Schroedinger
Schroedinger is the physicist who basically started that whole idea about a “code” for human life way before Crick and Watson figured out that whole DNA thing. What Is Life? is based off of his lectures about this very idea. If you’re a scientist who hasn’t read it yet, read it! But even if you’re just science-curious, it’s a beautifully written book that was written for the lay reader, so you won’t find yourself falling asleep or going cross-eyed over crazy science concepts.
She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen
There is literally nothing nerdier than Dungeons & Dragons. Except, maybe, a play about Dungeons & Dragons. OK... maybe a play about Dungeons & Dragons that's chock full of '90s references. Qui Nguyen's play is hilarious and nerdy to the core, but also super-deep. The plays premise has a young woman bonding with her recently deceased sister by diving head first into her sister's D&D campaign.
Glyph by Percival Everett
It’s about a genius baby! And said genius baby waxes poetic on everything from literary theory to complicated mathematics and philosophy while he’s still in the cradle. You’ll either laugh out loud as you get the hilariously nerdy discourses of this infant, or you’ll laugh uncomfortably as you Wikipedia it all…
Montano’s Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas
This one’s for the book nerds. Vila-Matas is probably the biggest book nerd ever, considering how many of his own novels are just about other books. In Montano’s Malady, the protagonist actually suffers from what he calls “literary sickness.” Every book nerd knows a thing or two about that…
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddartha Mukherjee
Nerds love big books, and this is a big book. Plus it features an exhaustive history, all the way back to the Egyptians, of one of the most baffling afflictions in medicine — cancer. History nerds, science nerds, medicine nerds, and the nerd who just loves anything nerdy will pretty much be in book heaven for all 600 pages.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
The book's "ghetto nerd" hero Oscar Wao is pretty darn geeky, but aside from all of the sci-fi and comic book references, you also get a pretty decent history lesson on the Trujillo-era Dominican Republic. History, a geeky hero, plus a bunch of nerdy sci-fi references? You might need to listen to a Kanye album while hunting down a cheerleading uniform to recover from that much nerdery.
Copenhagen by Michael Frayn
I’m pretty sure Michael Frayn only wrote Copenhagen because he wanted to imagine himself meeting Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr… I mean, that’s why I read it. The play pretty much puts you in the fly-on-the-wall position in a room with the two famous physicists during (a reimagination of) their meeting in 1941 in Copenhagen to discuss the atomic bomb. It’s kind of just nerd candy..
Kindred by Octavia Butler
So… time travel… and black people… not exactly the best pairing. You know, given slavery, most black people would probably prefer to travel forward in time than back. This might explain why there isn’t a lot of science fiction with black folk adventuring into the past. But Octavia Butler dared to go there, and it’s interesting! Nerds love time travel, and Octavia Butler does time travel in a way rarely seen before.
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov was a member of Mensa, which, on top of his career as a professor of biochemistry and a series of novels about math, pretty much makes him the nerdiest of nerds. I, Robot screams nerd from the title, and with kick-ass female scientist robopsychologist Susan Calvin as the protagonist, it lives up to the nerdiness promised in the title.
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
Gloria Steinem blurbed this book and called it “sort of like a comic book by Virginia Woolf.” That oughta be enough to get your inner nerd itching to run to the book store. But if that’s not enough, the book itself is a brilliant probing of one of the great mysteries of every human life: our relationships with our mothers.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
What nerd wouldn’t want to read a book that purports to find the answer to life, the universe, and everything? They might have not figured out the question… But, just ask any software developer how many times they use the number 42 when they need a random number. Between the Infinite Improbability Drive, the “somebody else’s problem” field, and the modern science of trying to make mathematical sense of a restaurant bill… this is basically the nerd bible.
All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness
With a mix of fantasy, time-travel, and super nerdy academics, the All Souls trilogy is basically academic nerd crack. You get witches and vampires, plus a nerd power couple in the series’ main protagonists the witch-historian Diana Bishop and her boo the vampire-geneticist Matthew Clairmont.
Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson
You can’t make a list of nerdy literature without talking about gods. And this book has gods, demigods, sea monsters, sisterly bonds, metaphorical magic, magic magic... and a girl who’s lost her mojo. This isn’t your typical heroic tale of muscled Greek heroes and gods that resemble children with temper tantrums. Instead you get a couple of demigod descended sister, one of whom didn’t get the godly goods in her genes, so she tries to make a living as a normal person. For the fantasy nerd who's looking for a fresh take, you couldn't do better than Nalo Hopkinson.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Computer hacker pulls off the ultimate hack a.k.a every single computer-obsessed nerd’s fantasy, aka Neuromancer by William Gibson. This is the book that precedes all other books of the “cyberpunk” variety. So, if you’re of the computerly persuasion of nerd, or, just, live in San Francisco, you should probably have read it by now.
X-23 and Astonishing X-Men by Marjorie Liu
Marjorie Liu is one of the best comics writers out, and it’s surprising that she’s not better known. Her stints on X-23 and Astonishing X-Men lent amazing depth to characters long neglected or sidelined by Marvel. In Astonishing X-Men she puts together one of the coolest X-Men teams ever, including a relatively new character Warbird, an alien warrior whose love of art was a taboo in her war-driven Shi’ar society. The series also got Liu nominated for a GLAAD Media Award "for outstanding media images of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community." That's right, she was the writer on that famous (at least in the comic book community) wedding between Northstar and his boo, the first ever LGBT wedding in Marvel comics history! In a genre where character development and relationships can fall by the wayside in favor of kitschy hero plots and explosions, Liu is a rare gem of writerly brilliance. But don’t worry she keeps it hardcore nerdy, too!
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
His nerdiness Stephen Hawking, a god among nerds, pretty much sealed his standing as nerd god with this classic. If you’ve ever wanted to have your mind boggled, just read this and join Stephen Hawking as he uses that giant brain of his to unravel the possibility of time travel, dive into wormholes, and all in all make you feel like a total noob.
Image: Alexander Solodukhin/Unsplash