Thu May 24, 2012
Connecting the Dots from Amateurism to the American Character
What do we mean when we call someone an "amateur"? What are we saying? As it happens, there are many answers to this question. On this edition of ST, we speak with Jack Hitt, a contributing editor to The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and public radio’s This American Life. Hitt also writes for Rolling Stone, GQ, and other magazines, and his newest book is "Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character." In this often funny and/or fascinating study, he claims that amateurism is at the very core of the American identity --- it's a mindset that defines us, a method (or improvisational lack thereof) that drives us, and a means to understanding not just our character but our whole history as Americans. As one critic of this book has written for Kirkus Reviews: "[This is] a guide through the sometimes-consequential, sometimes-zany realm of amateurs. Veteran journalist Hitt posits that various brands of amateurism conceived in the interest of advancing knowledge offer meaningful insights into a uniquely American character. The narrative thread holds together nicely through chapters focusing on the legendary amateurism of Benjamin Franklin, birdwatchers seeking the ivory-billed woodpecker, inventors of various gadgets, genealogists, archaeologists, astronomers, and linguists. Hitt wisely concedes that other nations harbor amateurs, as well, but he maintains that American amateurs are notable for their comfort with exploration and with rebelling against authority. Elsewhere in the world, where socioeconomic status is often hardwired at birth, the word 'amateur' suggests class warfare. In the United States, the word often carries a hint of adventure. Searching for lasting answers, Hitt studies business theory, providing a serious explanation that outsiders are often not hidebound by the curse of knowledge. In other words, when it comes to reconceiving a workplace, an industry, a charitable endeavor, or some other institution, perhaps ignorance sometimes can be considered bliss. Knowing almost nothing about something can become the catalyst driving breakthrough discoveries. When talented amateurs receive positive recognition for their accomplishments, such as the 'genius grants' provided annually by the MacArthur Foundation, the white heat of innovation might be kindled further. Hitt inserts himself into the narrative as he meets with living amateurs and discovers newly released material about deceased amateurs. The first-person approach is usually effective because it generates passion about the possibilities of the intellect. [Hitt offers] a quirky approach to a fresh way of looking at the human animal."