The cultural importance of ‘Amateur Hour’

Author Jack Hitt explores the motivation of pursuit

Jack Hitt. Photo courtesy of Random House.


By Steve Scarpa

The word amateur has many connotations – foolish, unskilled, and unpaid are often the first things that come to mind. For writer and New Haven resident Jack Hitt, the original and most positive definition is the one that most fascinates him and is one he’s recently spent quite a bit of time exploring.

“The very word amateur comes from the French and ultimately the Latin. It means to love and originally described a kind of helplessness in an endeavor. You so loved this thing you were doing that you didn’t bother to get paid,” Hitt said recently over coffee at Lulu’s, in the East Rock neighborhood where he lives.

Hitt and the author Joshua Foer, the author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, are partners in a unique lecture series on this very subject at The Institute Library on Chapel Street. The series, called “The Amateur Hour,” allows Hitt and Foer to talk to people about their quirky passions and interests bordering on obsessions.

The creation of the series was a happy accident.

“Both (Foer and I) have comparable, similar interests in human endeavor… So we started talking, somewhat about my book (the recently published Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character), but about just the world at large,” Hitt said. “Initially it was really Josh’s idea to bring his interests and mine together in an ‘Amateur Hour.’ Could we find people from Connecticut and nearby whose obsessions, interests, tinkerings, inventions, theories, and collections might yield a great, sort of old-fashioned conversation, kind of a two-person Chautauqua.”

The first talk in the series was Foer’s interview with Hitt. For the fall, the writers have put together a group of people imbued with passions ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Alan Abel, a comedian known for his elaborate pranks on the media, ranging from his faux-protestations against animal nudity in the late 1950s, to his and Foer’s creation of a fake “fat tax” in 2007, will appear on September 5. Ronald Mallett, a University of Connecticut professor, will talk about his research on the probability of time travel on October 17. Schuyler Towne will chat about his work as a safe-cracker on November 14. Each conversation begins at 7 p.m. at the library. Tickets are $5 for members and $10 for the general public.

Bunch of Amateurs Jacket. Image courtesy of Random House.


“We’ve both been enamored with people who are obsessed by a single thing. That thing might be something very quirky or it might be cracking the theory of everything, something perfectly mainstream and legitimate… But really it’s about the motivation behind the pursuit. The person is fairly helpless in their love of wanting to crack safes or time travel or the media, or whatever the subject is,” Hitt said.

For Bunch of Amateurs, Hitt found himself immersed in the world of amateurs, investigating birding, genetic science, and anthropology, among other things, with hilarious and oftentimes disturbing results. What he found is that the person tinkering in his garage – a key image in the growing do-it-yourself movement – is embodying a crucial component of the American character. From Benjamin Franklin through Steve Jobs, America has prided itself on its doers, people who are working outside of a system that is telling them their ideas can’t be brought to fruition.

“There is no realm that is understood to be off-limits to the lowest or newest citizen here. Americans affirm this idea in every aspect of their vernacular life (‘Anybody can grow up to be President’). It’s the essential faith of the amateur and the creed of America. It’s why George Washington opted to be called Mr. President instead of going with the pompous alternative ‘Your Excellency,’” Hitt writes in the book’s first chapter.

According to Hitt, these aspiring amateurs are a crucial part of our evolution as a culture. Because of their outsider status, they are able to question basic accepted principles in a way that the establishment can’t.

“Most people spend their days watching too much television and planning that one of these days they are going to do this thing. What makes these people different is that they wake up in the morning and say, ‘I have to do this thing,’ and they do it. Whether they are cranks or geniuses, it really didn’t interest me so much when I started looking into this because I was interested in their single-mindedness, their obsession, and their passion. That is what I really wanted to find out about,” Hitt said.

Also, that level of immersion, from Hitt’s perspective, is just fun. Reality, Hitt said, is so much more interesting than anything one can make up.

“Someone asked me at a reading recently when you are with these guys in the garage, can you tell if they are going to be the next Steve Jobs or some lunatic Christopher Lloyd out of Back to the Future. The truth is, you don’t know. Because at that point it is just someone with this vision right past the edge of what is known, and that could pan out and get commercialized into Apple computer and make you a billion dollars, or it could turn into cold fusion and make you into a fool,” Hitt said.

Journalism done right can help a journalist become a professional amateur of sorts, one who takes an outsider perspective in order to craft a great story.

“There are obstacles in the path of your preconceived notions. That is the story. That is the new. And the new is so hard to find,” Hitt said.

Right now, Hitt is in a period of research – “You know, watching The Wire and catching up on Breaking Bad,” he said. Actually, jests aside, this is an important time for Hitt. By allowing himself a period of exploration, immersing himself in fiction and other texts he’s missed from doing research and exploring different subject matter, he is searching for the topic of his next book.

“When you are working on a book, you feel like everything you are reading has to be about what you are doing,” Hitt said.

In the meantime, until the next book topic reveals itself, Hitt will be covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions for Harper’s Magazine. He’s also putting together a new stage show, the follow-up to his hit production Making Up the Truth, which was staged at Long Wharf Theatre during the 2011 International Festival of Arts and Ideas. The freelance life suits Hitt. He joked that several people who read his treatise on the benefits of amateurism said it’s “a monstrous justification for (his) wayward life.”

“One of the pleasures of being a journalist is stepping into something you don’t understand,” Hitt said. “The real pleasure of journalism is discovering how you are wrong and adjusting your story… You run out to the edge of your ignorance and explore that part of yourself and your preconceived notion of things.”

For more information about Bunch of Amateurs, visit www.jackhitt.com. For more information about The Institute Library, visit www.institutelibrary.org.

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