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Book Review: Terrible Nerd by Kevin Savetz

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Kevin Savetz first calls himself a “terrible nerd” in the opening paragraph of the second chapter of his new autobiography. His admission that he has never read the Lord of the Rings books, or even really liked the Star Wars movies would certainly horrify the guys of The Big Bang Theory. Over the course of Terrible Nerd, the use of the word “terrible” also appears to be used in the slang form, as in “extreme” nerd. The author certainly qualifies on both fronts.

Savetz’s self-published memoir first caught my eye with one of the cover blurbs, “This is the story of a boy coming of age in the dawn of home computing.” The story sounded like something I could relate to, as I am just a few years older than he is, and had a similar early interest in gaming, and home computers.

For example, there is something about playing old Atari games that I never tire of. I played them in the early ‘80s on our 2600 console, then sometime in the ‘90s, I bought them on a Microsoft floppy for PC, and just recently I discovered a site for playing them online. I guess I just never tire of Asteroids or Centipede. My point in bringing this up is that those childhood totems have stayed with me for 30 years now, and probably always will. Savetz has a similar feeling toward computers.

I thought I would be reading the story of a guy whose experiences paralleled my own. And they do, up to a point. But Mr. Savetz went much further with computers than I could have ever hoped to. As it turns out, many of us may have unknowingly e-mailed him back in the ‘90s. You see, Savetz was America Online’s “Answer Man,” who answered the questions of “newbies” during the company’s early years.

As home computers and the online boom really began to take off, AOL was definitely king of the hill. You may remember those “free 30-day trial” displays that were on just about every store counter in the nation during the mid-’90s. Or you may have gotten a floppy-disc as an insert in a magazine, or even had one (or more) show up in your snail-mailbox. They were ubiquitous, and just about everyone who went online during the Clinton years very likely had an “@aol.com” e-mail address at some point.

To help us navigate this strange new world, AOL had their Answer Man, who just happened to be Kevin Savetz. I am pretty certain that I looked at his FAQ once or twice, and may have even e-mailed him with a question as well. His position as the Answer Man is revealed about three-quarters of the way into the book, and I found it fascinating. Like the famous “You’ve got mail” voice, the world of AOL was part and parcel of the initial online experience for millions of people.

It turns out that Savetz sort of stumbled into this gig, as an outgrowth of his work  as a freelance journalist. He graduated college as a journalism major, but received some of his best advice outside of school. Like so many of us, in all of his writing courses, Savetz was never given the “secret” to effective writing. It is very simple, yet for some reason, teachers seem to be extremely reluctant in revealing it. The secret is to find your own voice. When it comes to explaining technical issues (or even writing a book review), talk to your readers as if you are having a conversation with a friend.

Things have changed considerably in Savetz’s life over the years, but his position as the Answer Man must still look good on his resume. He has continued working in the computer industry by publishing books, and he has launched a number of websites.

I found Terrible Nerd to be an interesting and highly entertaining read. While his story differs considerably from my own, I still found plenty of points I could relate to, which I imagine many others will as well. The book is available through various outlets, including (naturally enough), Savetz Publishing.

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About Greg Barbrick