50 shades of obsession

Benjamin Franklin's kite and the quest for glow-in-the-dark yogurt

Jul 11, 2012 at 12:00 am

Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character

Jack Hitt

Crown Publishers, $26, 288 pp.

From Benjamin Franklin's discovery of electricity with a children's toy to biohackers trying to create new forms of life in their garages, America is and has always been a nation defined by the "self-invented crank wandering off to the outskirts of an obsession." In other words, we're all a bunch of amateurs — or at least that's the case reporter Jack Hitt makes in his book of that title.

It's a fraught word, "amateur," with both positive and negative meanings. Etymologically, the amateur can be a true lover of something, unencumbered by professional codes, obligations or the need to defend the fortress of power. On the other hand, we have the phrase "rank amateur," to show the negative effects of such crankish obsessions. And America, as Hitt ably shows, is a mixture of both.

Franklin acts as a totemic figure throughout the book. Early on, there is a great scene in which John Adams — the fustiest of the Founding Fathers — is standing in officially starched and uptight court garb, waiting for his fellow diplomat to show up for an important court meeting in Paris. Hitt is a writer who knows how to draw back and keep you drawn in. He leaves Adams standing there, furious and fretting, and takes his time setting the scene, as if we're all just sitting around the campfire together. All the better, because when Franklin steps out of his carriage wearing a coonskin cap — intentionally playing the amateur, much like latter-day punk bands — we are struck by the humor and gravitas of the moment.

Hitt follows the set of ideas that flow from the contrast between Adams and Franklin throughout the history of the country: Amateurs are able to make new discoveries because they don't have power or reputations to protect and are more willing to "crowdsource" — and because, frankly (or Franklinly), they are doing it all out of love.

On the other hand, they are susceptible to seeing what they want to see, as is the case with the amateur anthropologists convinced that the "Kennewick Man"— the oldest human remains in North America — is Caucasian. Here, Hitt, the professional journalist, shows how the discourse surrounding this story is inched further from scientific caution and toward the (racist-leaning) claims that the original European settlers of North America were wiped out by Paleo-Indians. In other words, "amateurs are often wrong, crazy, fraudulent or twisted," as Hitt puts it.

But the same sense of obsession can also reveal the wizard behind the curtain of authority "to be merely a washed-up blowhard who's been dining out on the tattered remains of a dated and jejune credentialism."

For instance, Hitt takes us through the early 2000s controversy of the ivory-bill woodpecker, which was, for a while, the most famous bird on the planet. Thought to have been extinct since it was last spotted in 1944, a number of professional ornithologists spotted the ivory bill in Arkansas. Or they thought they did. The publicity surrounding the bird led to great advances in conservation efforts — and vast amounts of federal money — and the professional community saw what they wanted to see. Hitt shows how the constant analysis of data by bloggers greatly undermined the certainty of the scientific community, making it far more likely that the bird in question was the common pileated woodpecker. Though the professionals didn't exactly recant, they fell into an embarrassed silence in the face of amateur criticism — a story repeated again and again throughout the book.

The idea behind these stories is so timely because we live in an age when the Internet has opened up every field to the assault of amateur knowledge. So it's an important idea, no doubt, but it also seems to be demanded by the market as much as by the stories themselves.

Hitt is smarter than Malcolm Gladwell, a better storyteller than his colleagues at This American Life, and a better reporter than any big name you can think of. But he remains largely a writers' writer, because collections of nonfiction reported pieces just don't sell or excite the public imagination. Such collections don't offer big-thesis-sound-bites like Gladwell's Outliers that make it easy to talk about what's on television or the radio. But Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character could change all of that.

Still, the big idea — the attempt to connect the delightful pieces — is the weakest part of this otherwise exceptionally robust book. A reader — at least this reader — can feel annoyed when Hitt's Sisyphean attempts to make "Glo-gurt" (glow-in-the-dark yogurt) with a biohacker who calls herself clonearmy are interrupted so that he can drive home the point about amateurism. In other words, this "search for the American character" is a cool organizing idea for a bunch of even cooler profiles of eccentric cranks.

Some authors would be tempted to make fun of all of these self-invented amateurs. But despite his consummate professionalism, Hitt suspects that he has more in common with them than with the establishment types against whom they rail. Reporters of Hitt's stripe (feature writers) are always rank amateurs who start every story knowing, essentially, nothing about it. Before he began the story, Hitt had little idea of biohacking or how to make a telescope but, by the end of his journey, he has spent weeks doing these things, side by side with his subjects, learning, like them, through trial, error and obsession.

Baynard Woods writes for City Paper in Baltimore where this piece originally appeared. Send comments to [email protected].