03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Geek Like Me: A Review of Ethan Gilsdorf's Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks

If the hair on your feet makes you think of Bilbo Baggins...

If you can tell a battle-axe from a halberd at 50 yards...

If you know that a Gelatinous Cube has nothing to do with JELLO... might be a geek.

But what does it mean to be a geek?

Ethan Gilsdorf's new book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks (Lyons Press, 2009) tackles that question with strength and dexterity.

Gilsdorf, a freelance journalist whose writing appears regularly in the Boston Globe and New York Times, returns to the fantasy games that he used to navigate a difficult childhood as a jumping-off point for a full-scale investigation of geekdom.

While fantasy and gaming has become increasingly mainstream - just look at the success of the Lord of the Rings films, the endless stream of superhero blockbusters, or the popularity of retirement-home Wii parties - there remain numerous subcultures, more or less unknown to the masses, and millions for whom fantasy isn't a hobby, but a lifestyle. It's these true believers that Gilsdorf sets out to mingle with and learn from - to explore what fantasy means to him and to them. As such, the book is part personal odyssey, part medieval mid-life crisis, and part wide-ranging survey of all things freaky and geeky.

While the author wrestles with the personal and social implications of embracing his inner geek, he passes through a series of worlds: rolling (dice) with Dungeons and Dragons players, reenacting with medieval re-enactors, battling LARPers (practitioners of Live-Action Role Playing) with foam swords, assuming the persona of a digital elf online, and tramping through Hobbit country in New Zealand.

Some of the worlds are imaginary, some virtual, and some very real (i.e. a genuine castle being painstakingly built with period tools and methods in France).

Gilsdorf describes the people and places he observes in his travels in playful and unabashedly geeky prose. Consider this sample from a section describing some older gamers: "They had cackling laughs and glints in their eyes, like a herd of Santa Clauses crossbred with battle-ready dwarves."

The book is full of encounters, both funny and poignant, with people who march to the beat of their own war drums. Gilsdorf presents even his most outlandish encounters straightforwardly, rarely judging anyone but himself, which he does often and largely to comic effect. Along the way he confronts enduring stereotypes of role players and gamers - namely that they are emotionally stunted basement-dwellers - a stigma belied by the people Gilsdorf encounters: parents, teachers and soldiers who are in turns generous, brave - even sexy.

At the core of the book is an exploration of the significance and allure of fantasy. It's a difficult thing to distill, since, as Gilsdorf discovers, fantasy worlds mean vastly different things to their different inhabitants. For some, fantasy is pure diversion, for others a life-draining addiction, for many an exercise in community, and for some even a moral compass and tool for self-discovery.

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks acts as a good introduction for those unfamiliar with fantasy and gaming, while providing plenty of detail for real geeks to chew on. (A dwarf's-eye view of GenCon and DragonCon for starters.) It's a fun ride and it poses a question that goes to the very heart of fantasy, namely:

What does the urge to become someone else tell us about ourselves?

Update: I've just been informed by the author that there's a promotional giveaway this week of 10 copies of the book in partnership with The winners will be drawn on Jan. 13th so just enter an email address for a chance to win a free, autographed copy of the book! Check it out and enter here: Win a copy of "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks"