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.
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!View more articles by Nick Normal