Monday, August 6, 2012

Bunch of Amateurs by Jack Hitt

Why I read it: I liked the underlying theme, of Americans tinkering in their garages trying to create the next great thing.

Summary: Americans never give up on the notion that there always exists the potential for a better mouse-trap.

My Thoughts: He had me until the very last words, but I'll save that for the end.

Much of what the author says is true. Americans are tinkerers, dreamers. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it's dangerous. Too many people, for instance, have achieved backyard nuclear fusion. But there are many others who have made real scientific discoveries through avocational pursuits, to the disappointment of the people actually paid to make them.

The author runs through the sciences - ornithology, archaeology, genetics, robotics, etc. - and shows how Americans are at work in their garages, in their parlors under assumed company names, or simply sitting behind a computer screen, finding out truths.

We've all met them - the crackpots, the nutjobs, the people we look at and say, "can you imagine spending your entire life like that guy? focused on nothing but that one thing?" For some of us it's birders who can break down an avocet feather by feather, for others it's the guy who has worked in accounting his whole life but swears an ancient meteor struck in his backyard, and my god, his evidence when he presents it is pretty damn enticing.

Hitt shows us that sometimes avocation overpowers vocation. We hate our jobs, for which we are paid to be experts; we love our passions, because we are free to explore them without restraint. University professors have to pick and choose projects based on funding, backing; backyard archaeologists can dig and dig and dig.

I just wish he didn't use the final words he chose, "the amateur's dream is the American dream." The American dream changes with the generations. He has the right to espouse it; it is one version of the American dream, but the whole thing is just now way too cliche. I felt the book was wrapping up in a much stronger way. Oh well.

Read it, though, and become inspired. Figure out why we are the way we are, why you do the things you do on the weekends, tinkering with the hot rod, gazing into the starry sky, flipping over rocks in search of snakes, or whatever it is that you do with your free time, or your time of freedom, to be more precise.

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