Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character
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WHAT IS IT THAT DRIVES THE SUCCESS OF AMERICA AND THE IDENTITY OF ITS PEOPLE? ACCLAIMED WRITER AND CONTRIBUTING EDITOR TO THIS AMERICAN LIFE JACK HITT THINKS IT’S BECAUSE WE’RE ALL A BUNCH OF AMATEURS.
America’s self-invented tinkerers are back at it in their metaphorical garages—fiddling with everything from solar-powered cars to space elevators. In Bunch of Amateurs, Jack Hitt visits a number of different garages and has written a fascinating book that looks at America’s current batch of amateurs and their pursuits. From a tattooed young woman in the Bay Area trying to splice a fish’s glow-in-the-dark gene into common yogurt (all done in her kitchen using salad spinners)
to a space fanatic on the brink of developing the next generation of telescopes from his mobile home, Hitt not only tells the stories of people in the grip of a passion but argues that America’s history is bound up in a cycle of amateur surges.
Beginning with Ben Franklin’s kite and leading all the way to the current TV hit American Idol, Hitt argues that the nation’s
love of self-invented obsessives has always driven the country to rediscover the true heart of the American dream. Amateur pursuits are typically lamented as a world that just passed until a Sergey Brin or Mark Zuckerberg steps out of his garage (or dorm room) with the rare but crucial success story. In Bunch of Amateurs, Hitt argues that America is now poised to pioneer at another frontier that will lead, one more time, to the newest version of the American dream.
ratings sanctuary of simply repeating what the establishment had instructed them to say. In a sense, the regular TV anchor and the “action reporter” had already become parodies of serious newsmen. It’s just that the wooden professionals didn’t get the joke until Stewart and Colbert showed up. There is a certain playfulness that comes with pretending, and that, too, is the animating spirit of amateur pursuits. Every study confirms that getting a person into a spirit of play not only puts them in
played chess with a notorious lady named Madame Anne-Louise d’Hardancourt Brillon de Jouy while she bathed in her tub. He had attended dinners where women just plopped into Franklin’s lap, showered him in kisses, and purred, “mon cher papa.” Women who might otherwise seem honorable would casually flop an arm around Franklin’s shoulder. It was outrageous, Adams complained, such “incessant dinners and dissipation.” Why couldn’t they just go to the king and ask for help and money? Franklin had
story that’s getting told right now about the earliest inhabitants of this continent. I have a little experience in this field. I know how to jerry-rig a narrative using only a couple of wayward factoids to make it sound just right. It’s something I was born to do. It’s in my royal blood. I am the direct descendant of King Charlemagne. V. Ladies and Gentlemen, Kennewick Man For most of the 1990s, the sotto voce chatter about pre-Clovis man and his possible identity was little more than
Altamira are often held up as the threshold event revealing “abstract” thought, which made us truly human. My personal favorite, this week, takes us all the way back to the apes. A primate specialist in Toronto named David Begun holds that he has found “the last common ancestor to the great apes”—i.e., the notorious missing link. Where? In Europe. His theory is that African apes crossed into Europe, picked up those civilizing traits that would eventually lead to humanness, and then slipped back
that a gas station? Frustration inaugurated my trip to the odd trailer park and quickly developed into a leitmotif. Looking innovation square in the face turns out to be like spotting a shooting star, fairly gone by the time you see it. My imaginative idea of a village of inventors at work in their sheds was belied by my visit. The Rinconada Trailer Park, for instance, had, besides Genet, only one other tenant, the landlord himself—giving the visit a Hitchcockian air. When I parked my rental in