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Book Review: Geeks by Jon Katz

In Geeks, Jon Katz has written a powerful, moving story with two unlikely heroes who call themselves geeks. But as Katz has explained in his writings for Slashdot.org, geek isn’t the insult it sometimes seems. In fact some of them consider it a compliment, he said.

Most of the fascinating non-fiction book centers around the lives of teenage hackers Jesse Dailey and Eric Twilegar. At the beginning of the book Katz introduces us to them and their dreary lives in Idaho. They don’t fit into their Mormon community, because of a combination of anti-social behavior and finding the Internet more interesting than non-computer activities.

Katz suggests they consider moving to a place where they could better use their skills. And soon they are making plans to do exactly that in Illinois. But they’re not only human and prone to human error, but overly reliant on technology. So when they need to find an apartment in Illinois, the hackers use a search engine, and don’t see their new home in person before signing rental agreements.

Oops. Their home ends up being quite a commute from Chicago, in an area without people their age. Katz kicks himself for not pushing them harder to see the building before agreeing to move there.

Katz is a Rolling Stone reporter, who has also written for other publications including Wired in addition to penning several novels. In the book Katz alternates between describing their lives and the changes and quoting emails from the hackers. The result is an engrossing tale.

Katz shares the reader’s frustration at times as the hackers remain shy and choose to spend more time with their computers than with other people. But the reader is left rooting for Dailey, as he makes attempts to improve his life, including getting admitted to the University of Chicago. Dailey knows his low grades and test scores make it almost impossible that he will be admitted but hopes that will be outweighed by past life experiences, including breaking laws, being a former gang member, and suffering through much family dysfunction.

It was during his work on this book, while continuing his friendship with the hackers, that the school shootings in Littleton, Colo. occurred. Katz describes in fascinating detail the reactions of hackers around the world, including Dailey, as the media, schools and governments demonize and stigmatize all hackers.

Katz becomes a hero of sorts to hackers as he writes on Slashdot.org about his objections to these stereotypes and recounts, sometimes quoting emails from hackers, how difficult their lives have been made by institutions who don’t understand their fascination with violent games or black trench coats.

Interwoven throughout the book are excerpts from fascinating emails Katz received from self-professed geeks about that label and way of life. He refers to the geek movement as the “geek ascendancy.”

But it is the story about the two hackers that keeps the reader turning the pages and wanting more.

Ultimately I’m left pleased to have been able to live vicariously through Katz as he covered this amazing story. The only problem with a book covering a few years of these hackers’ lives is the questions remaining about what happens next in their adventure.

But that’s what sequels are for, isn’t it? Here’s hoping Katz will do exactly that someday.

This review originally appeared at Mindjack.
Edited: PC

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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