In a 2010 piece for Wired, Patton Oswalt declares "I'm not a nerd. I used to be, 30 years ago when nerd meant something." Oswalt goes on to chart his own obsessions growing up, describes his interest in sci-fi and role playing games and the trappings that generally snare kids we think of — or thought of — as nerds. Interests that are not — and here he quotes Poe — "passions from a common spring." But by 2010, everyone was declaring themselves "nerds" and "geeks" and "otaku" — a Japanese word referring to "people who have obsessive, minute interests." Now everyone "considers themselves otaku about something—whether it’s the mythology of Lost or the minor intrigues of Top Chef. American Idol inspires—if not in depth, at least in length and passion—the same number of conversations as does The Wire."
Nerd or geek or otaku or — relevant to us here, as we are talking about Oswalt's new book — fiend are tricky appellations. It's not just the interest that garners the pre-2010 distinction, but the depth of interest. A nerd knows their chosen subjects more thoroughly than the creators. But then the question is begged: what sets a nerd apart from a highly regarded person who likewise fishes passions not from the so-called common stream?
Silver Screen Fiend is ostensibly an addiction memoir, detailing a period of 4 years in the late 90s where seeing as many movies as he could was all Oswalt was living for. But it's also, and fundamentally, a critical and creative coming-of-age story. A young Oswalt begins his addiction under the auspice of education. He'll become a filmmaker and the program at The New Beverly will be his syllabus. The idea is that consumption will eventually turn into production. I won't spoil the book for you, but you can check out the Writer and Director credits on IMDB. But these four years as a fiend also run alongside personal and professional maturation, with Oswalt's stand-up interests getting spun by a scene of "alternative" comedy in LA as well as getting his first job as a writer for MADtv. It's a period where the notion of responsibility begins to creep in — not in any civic sort of way, but creative and intellectual responsibility.
Compulsive consumption of culture can be like eating without tasting. "I... had to learn to look for the moments of substance and impact in the everyday," writes Oswalt, describing a personal pivot. "I was sitting in a minimall Subway having a sandwich one evening, on my way from work to go to Largo, when I read a quote by Italo Calvino: 'seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.'"
Here's the sad fact: when you eat without exercising, you just get fat. (This is a realization Oswalt makes a little too late, as his 4 years of devotion come to a close with the discovery of "shelves" of chub hammered into the wall of him.) Food has little purpose unless it's turned into energy. This is similar with entertainment and media. And perhaps this is when one officially stops being a nerd. What's the point of accruing knowledge for knowledge's sake? Silver Screen Fiend is ultimately about a young Oswalt's transition from a passive experiencer of culture into an active one. Patton burns his intake, turning it into energy as opposed to just hoarding it.
His written voice is recognizably Patton Oswalt here, but it's not a transcription of his stage delivery. On the page, there's a gentleness and earnestness to Oswalt's voice. Untethered from what's usually about five or seven minute bits, his prowess as a nuanced experiencer and long-game connector blossom. His previous book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland went a little ways to distinguish his stand-up from his prose, but Silver Screen Fiend makes some serious threats towards an autonomous career as a man of letters.