Earlier this month, we announced the publication of This American Life contributing editor Jack Hitt’s newest book, Bunch of Amateurs, published by The Crown Publishing Group. Now we’re following up that announcement with the first of my two-part interview with Jack, discussing the history of the word amateur, influential makers, and the institutional versus entrepreneurial approaches to American amateurism. Read on!

MAKE: If a “Glossary of the American Character” existed, certain words come to mind that reference actors in your book: rascal, outsider, homebrew, to pioneer, even rebel. Likewise, certain terms like “home movies,” referencing an era of Betamax and VHS to America’s Funniest Home Videos and now YouTube, seem to suggest an “only in America” phenomenon. Meaning “lover” or “lover of,” what made you settle upon the word amateur?

Jack Hitt: The word itself is a beautiful thing. It comes from Latin — amo, amas, amat — because the base meaning of amateur is one who does it, not for pay, but for love, obsession, because there’s no way they cannot do it. But the word in Europe still suggests, simply, a non-professional. Once it crossed the pond, the word became a wonderful muddle of contradictions. It runs the gamut from novice (amateur painter) to incompetent (rank amateur) to near connoisseur (amateur art collector). This tangle is American, too, reflecting that deep truth of an immigrant nation (starting from scratch) and our anxiety about it.

MAKE: The amateurs you researched, from birders and archaeologists to star-gazers and homebrew geneticists, are fairly diverse in their disciplines (and technological resources). Did you intentionally plan to dabble in all these different groups – from guides in the woods to DNA bashers in the lab – or did they sort of spontaneously present themselves along the way, like a random encounter on the street?

Jack: Amateurs gather where some discipline is in distress and where innovation is waiting. So, I went looking for those places. Consider my own world of journalism. In the last few decades, the stately media have become high-born press agents, carefully reciting reports handed to them by a semi-permanent bureaucracy in Washington, DC. Then, along came bloggers, swarming the fortress of official journalism, painfully reminding the inhabitants what afflicting the comfortable actually means.

MAKE: And what allured you to the notion of amateurism in the first place?

Jack: I spent a while hanging out with the Kansas City Space Pirates, a team of amateurs competing in a NASA competition involving power beaming. The goal, ultimately, is to build a space elevator — a 60,000 mile long ribbon built of carbon nanotubes, a slightly-but-not-entirely cracked idea that would permit us to easily escape the gravity of earth and more handily domesticate space. After some time with the Pirates, it struck me that the world of backyard tinkerers was not a halcyon time that has passed but one that has come cycling back around.

MAKE:The word amateur to me is quite positive, but I can see where others might disagree, thinking the word undermines their character (I would take the time to discuss, and attempt to convince them otherwise!). Did you encounter anyone who took offense to the word, or the notion of “rank amateurism,” and what was their feedback?

Jack: Actually, I was the one who was the most troubled. Amateur is one of those complex words with so many meanings that it’s easy to offend. In the bird chapter, I slyly refer to David Sibley as a kind of amateur. Sure, he’s a Cornell dropout — so it’s technically true — but I felt almost idiotic referring to the greatest bird painter of our time as an amateur. He knows more about any single bird — its feathers, coloration, movements, songs — than any credentialed ornithologist alive. It’s just that his knowledge is autodidactic; he taught himself, by spending a lifetime out of doors, looking. That’s a different, older kind of knowledge — born of a passionate intensity — than the focused know-how, positively re-inforced by elder approval, learned in a school. Still, it felt pretty weird, almost offensive.

MAKE: To me, the chapter about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker – IBWO – revolves around this notion of enthusiasm. Lots and lots of people being really enthusiastic about what is essentially a “mythic” bird. At what point does one’s enthusiasm bubble up and become a type of amateurism?

Jack: Well, “enthusiast” is just another, older word for amateur, right? (from the Greek, “divinely inspired”). But the bird chapter is a cautionary tale for both amateurs and professionals — a long (very long, I admit) parable about how enthusiasm can be its own delusion. The most credentialed birders in the world, the Ph.D.’s of Cornell, found themselves caught up in a bubble of pure excitement, and as a result, managed to see, hear, and even videotape a bird that we now know was never there.

That concludes the first of a two-part interview with Jack Hitt. And now for the prize giveaway! Up for grabs is another piece of Orion hardware, this time, their UltraView 10×50 Wide Angle binoculars, complete with soft carrying case and neck strap. Portable and light, these binoculars are great for stargazing, bird-watching, or field sports, and offer 10-power viewing through 50mm lenses, with a rubber finish that is easy to handle.

To enter to win: All you have to do is leave a comment below! Comments left before May 31st at 11:59pm PST will be eligible to win this prize. Be sure to leave a valid email so we can contact you if you win. Feel free to tell a story about your own amateur pursuits, although it’s not necessary for a chance to win. For complete rules, click here.

Be sure to check back on June 12th to read the rest of my interview with Jack Hitt, and for our final giveaway. And congratulations to MAKE blog reader Landisb who won the first prize giveaway!

These prizes are provided by The Crown Publishing Group, publishers of Bunch of Amateurs.

Nick Normal

Nick Normal

I’m an artist & maker. A lifelong biblioholic, and advocate for all-things geekathon. Home is Long Island City, Queens, which I consider the greatest place on Earth. 5-year former Resident of Flux Factory, co-organizer for World Maker Faire (NYC), and blogger all over the net. Howdy!

  • Jacob

    Good read

  • Darren Landrum

    I really don’t have anything to add to the article. I just want to win those binoculars. ;)

  • Hank Curmudgeon

    Noice binos!!!

  • http://electricprojects.wordpress.com Chief Robot

    Seems like an amazing book.

  • Jacob Carlen

    Nice interview. I’d like to read the second part.

  • T Dziubakowski

    I also don’t have anything to add, just want a shot at the prize !!!

  • Cairn

    I’d like to win those binoculars.

  • J.R.

    Amateur Commenter

  • http://gravatar.com/metavoltaire metavoltaire

    Sounds like a great book!

  • Ein Saint Ereo

    As an amateur of a wide selection of hobbies, it’s quite a neat read. Can’t wait for part 2!

  • GCF

    I might have to do some birding if I win those. Or moosing. Or maybe bearing.

  • http://gravatar.com/zervouli zervouli

    It’s unfortunate that in the USA the word amateur devolved into a pejorative.

  • parker

    i don’t really care for the binoculars, but my daughter would LOVE them.

  • Kozz

    Love Jack Hitt as well as his contributions to TAL. Those glasses sure look nice! I promise to share them with my sons… if they ask nicely. :)

  • Gokul

    I hike often and I can really use a pair of binoculars!

  • D. Vargas

    Signed book AND binoculars? I’m in!

  • kotzwiener

    Nice Article, you guys at make always deliver me good reads! I’d like to win the prize!

  • JSC

    Interesting interview. Can’t wait to see part 2.

  • bumper1957

    Binocs would be a great win!!

  • Kevin R.

    Ooh, nice prize. My amateur pursuit is raising a family.

  • james heriford

    Great interview!

  • Jeff

    This is a great interview! Amateurs are AWESOME!

  • http://www.blazingpencils.com sk8sonh2o

    Amatocracy rules unprofessionally.

  • kim J

    nice interview, good read!

  • Ed Reed

    Here’s my entry.

  • Alex Gand

    I wanna win!

  • http://twitter.com/samuelcotter Samuel Cotter (@samuelcotter)

    As an enthusiast and amateur, I’m interested to read the book!

  • Charles Haase

    Looking forward to part 2 of the interview!

  • http://www.facebook.com/LynneWhitehorn Lynne Whitehorn

    I always try to emphasize that “amateur” does not mean “inexperienced”. I know lots of expert amateurs and more than a few inexpert professionals.

  • Great and Mighty Tim

    Added the book to my amazon wish list so I can get it the next time I make an amazon order.

  • Dante

    I’m an amateur engine rebuilder/reclaimer/reseller: I find discarded lawn & garden equiment, repair them, and sell them on CL. The modest profiuts allow me to increase my inventory of tools and supplies for other projects, but the satisfaction of coaxing a machine back to life for what may be years of additional service is (almost) reward enough.

    Oh, and I’d also love to have some good binoculars.

  • http://www.facebook.com/PelicanFeathers Tommy Phillips

    This book is definitely on my list. Along with _Shop_Class_As_Soul_Craft_ and _Made_By_Hand_, and probably other books I am unaware of, it seems that they are documenting the Maker movement in a way that can be taken seriously by the main stream.

  • Zack

    This books looks pretty interesting, also I’d love to have the binoculars.

  • Juli Fowler

    Yes, please!

  • tony p

    So cool. Thanks for sharing.

  • Ron McCoy

    An amateur does things for the love of them. What could be better?

  • http://jon.netdork.net Jonathan Angliss

    Might have to add this book to the list. Looks interesting.

  • Tandy Nicholson

    Good interview.

  • Lori

    Good interview, thanks for sharing. Need to add it to my reading list.

  • Christine Nobbe

    I love the Moon and would use these binoculars for nightly Moon- gazing.

  • http://twitter.com/loumsc Louis Davidson (@loumsc)

    Love this prize!

  • http://twitter.com/bfoxmatt Becky Fox Matthews (@bfoxmatt)

    As an amateur gardener, birder, botanist, robot/sculpture/wine/jewelry-tinkerer/maker, professional science educator and former professional musician–when you take something from the amateur to the professional level, it’s hard not to lose a little of the love and joy of simply doing it for fun.

  • http://dwarmstr.blogspot.com/ Dean W. Armstrong

    If I make a comment criticizing the terms of the contest, does it still count as an entry? Keep in mind not a disparaging comment.

    • Nick Normal

      I think that’s fair – what are the terms you wish to criticize?

      • Dean W. Armstrong

        Hi Nick!
        I thought “Unless prohibited by law, Winner allows Sponsors to use Winner’s name and/or likeness, in any and all media, for any advertising, promotional, trade, or any other purpose, without further compensation to, or permission from, Winner. ”
        was too much– “or any other purpose”–I’d agree if I won to agree to advertising regarding the contest, but not to give away my name and likeness in any and all media for any advertising. That’s going beyond the ideas of this contest.

        • http://gravatar.com/nicknormal Nick Normal

          hi Dean,
          Thanks for your feedback – I’ll pass this along to our team who organize these contests.

  • http://joemonti.org/ countjoe

    I try to be an amateur at many things.

  • http://gravatar.com/wnemay wnemay

    Short but good interview. Looking forward to the next part.

  • Scott MacHaffie

    Cool. I’m an amateur at lots of stuff.

  • david kerr

    Amateur enthusiast = nerd. And yes I’m aware that so is talking in equations. I’m pro-nerd, ya big nerd.

  • http://gravatar.com/andreahofer Andrea Hofer

    “Amateurs gather where some discipline is in distress and where innovation is waiting.” Great quote!

  • Rob Broadley

    Interesting article. I’m currently an aspiring amateur guitarist!

  • Cassandra

    Great read and great giveaway!

  • http://www.paperbagcowboy.com Charles

    Does one need to lose one’s “amateur status” to become professional? Is it considered “selling out”?
    There are thousands of amateurs who love what they do so much that they squeeze it into their spare time, wishing they could get paid to do what they love so they can pursue it full time – “going pro”.
    Does that mean they’re no longer amateurs? Or does it mean they fall into that special category of the luckiest individuals who get paid to do what they love?

    • Nick Normal

      I would argue and there are plenty of examples throughout Jack’s book where the argument is in fact that amateurs are like their own breed of “professionals,” and that plenty of amateurs make a living off their trade, from biohackers to telescope makers and beyond. Call it luck, I call it life!

  • Philippe Jegues

    Hope to pickup this book soon.

  • Monica


  • david

    I can see!

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.the.knight Chris Knight

    I agree that the word “Amateur” too often has an undeserved negative connotation. I wonder if those NASA guys were thinking about that amateur Space X team ( I’m sure they were all working together closely and collaborating)?

  • Yorgie

    Can they spot trains?

  • Pingback: MAKE | On Amateurism: Interview With Jack Hitt, Part 2()

  • http://www.yurtleyurts.co.uk Dave

    Interesting to learn the etymology of the word amateur – I never would have thought!

  • http://demej00.wordpress.com jimmydemello

    I am an amateur unicyclist, guitarist, artist, rcist (that is rc as in radio control) and engineering experimentalist. I have a pair of Canon 10×30 Image Stabilizer binocs – unbeatable.

  • Pingback: Bunch of Amateurs: Interview with Jack Hitt « John Erik Pattison()

  • http://www.themaroller.com Yonah

    The etymology of the word, “amateur” is interesting. What about a professional who loves his work so much he often does it for free? I’m a Physical Therapist, and I feel I have a G-d – given talent, and I LOVE what I do. When I know I can help someone who’s in pain, I can’t resist jumping in. I am university educated, but I’m a life-long learner, and I’ve picked up much on my own as well. I’m certainly a professional, but am I also an amateur, according to the root of the word?