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Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character Hardcover – May 15, 2012

3.5 out of 5 stars 60 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“A love letter to American culture…as fascinating as it is inspiring, this hilarious book is a tour de force that celebrates troublemakers, risk takers, and the American spirit.”--Publishers Weekly

“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.” --Baltimore City Paper

“I ask myself if there's a better non-fiction writer in America than Jack Hitt . . . and come up with nobody. I've been following and stealing from his work my whole career. His usual mode is to convince you that you're reading a rollicking yarn, while with his left hand building a serious and unexpectedly persuasive argument. In Bunch of Amateurs he brings that to perfection. The book is about cranks, but it is also about the strange crucible of social tensions and intellectual assumptions inside of which our ‘knowledge’ gets made.” --John Jeremiah Sullivan

"Hitt is a virtuoso storyteller and a skilled distiller of complex subjects." --New York Times

"How embarrassing it is to be asked to craft a blurb for Jack Hitt. I'm not fit to carry his bags. Few writers are. Bunch of Amateurs is completely sublime; beautifully written, hilarious, brushfire protean in the erudite shifts he makes--high culture, low, science, history, music, you name it--and just wonderfully rollicking. Who else can have one simultaneously laughing out loud and waiting with bated breath for Benjamin Franklin to alight from a carriage in Paris in 1778? No one but Jack Hitt, that's who. Like I said, it shames me to endorse him, so unfit to the task am I, but endorse him I must. I have no choice. You must read this book." --David Rakoff

"Jack Hitt is a latter-day Twain: a Southern storyteller and Yankee skeptic who slaughters sacred cows with unfailing wit and a childlike sense of wonder at the world. This makes him the perfect guide to the wacky yet inspiring universe of American inventiveness. Hitt's playfully profound book had me laughing with pride at the amateur in us all." --Tony Horwitz

“…a fabulous tribute to amateurs….This is a totally absorbing gallery of oddballs and obsessives on the brink of possibly great discoveries, written by a man with a deep appreciation for amateurs and their pursuits.”Booklist

About the Author

JACK HITT is a contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and public radio’s This American Life. He also writes for Rolling Stone, GQ, Wired, and, of course, Garden & Gun. He has won the Peabody Award, as well as the Livingston and Pope Foundation Awards. His stories can be heard on This American Life’s greatest hits CD, Lies, Sissies & Fiascoes, and The Best Crimes and Misdemeanors: Stories from The Moth. He is the author of a solo theater performance, currently touring, entitled Making Up the Truth.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1st Edition, 1st Printing edition (May 15, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307393755
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307393753
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,154,483 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Joel Avrunin TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 9, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Looking at the reviews already written, I do fear my negative review will be rated poorly solely for being a negative review. But I do take my responsibility as a reviewer seriously, and I was just disappointed by reading this book which started out with so much promise. Please read my comments and be objective.

The premise is that the American culture favors the amateur over the professional, and over the course of US history, the amateur has often been the one to prove the professionals wrong. Hitt tells the story of the distrust between Franklin and Adams, the story of amateur ornithologists investigating an extinct woodpecker, amateur DNA hackers, amateur astronomers (including Dobson), and more. Each story had the promise of telling a compelling story, but unfortunately, the narrative of the book fell flat.

The chapter on Franklin and Adams opened the book, and was by far the most interesting and compelling. I love reading about history, and always enjoy a retelling of how Franklin hammed up his "frontiersman" persona while in France. Adams is the straight-laced diplomat who can't understand why nobody likes him and Franklin gets all of the attention. Hitt does a great job telling this story.

Unfortunately, the next chapter on amateur ornithologists just dragged on for too long and was near impossible to follow. An extinct bird is discovered in a swamp, but many think the experts are so invested in the story they refuse to admit they are wrong. As the author tells the tale, he vacillates between blaming the Bush administration, the Cornell University ornithology department, the general bias of experts, the desire of the public for a good story---he never seems to find a villain or explain his thinking.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In this entertaining and wide ranging book journalist Jack Hitt explores what it is to be an amateur and why it has been a quintessentially American pursuit since the time of Ben Franklin, a man Hitt sees as a sort of founding father of amateurism. The word amateur came into English from the French word meaning passionate lover, and while amateurs can be off-track or irritatingly obsessed, they sometimes see possibilities more clearly than professionals because they aren't so invested in the prevalent paradigm. An amateur invented the Dobsonian telescope, making backyard astronomy affordable, backyard rocketry amateurs have been hired by NASA, amateurs like the young Steve Jobs envisioned the personal computer, and it was ardent birding amateurs who spotted flaws in the evidence the Cornel Lab of Ornithology presented to prove that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was not extinct. A recent piece in the Washington Post Magazine profiled an amateur fossil collector in Maryland who has revolutionized the thinking about what sorts of dinosaurs lived in the eastern United States; I'll put the web address for the article in the comments section.

According to Hitt, the cutting edge of amateurism today is the scary sounding "biohacking", or extracting DNA from one life form and inserting it in another in order to achieve sometimes whimsical results, like yogurt that can glow in the dark. It's apparently bored computer programmers, unexcited by tweaking existing programs like Excel, who are looking for the next frontier and driving this trend.

Bunch of Amateurs has plenty of Bill Bryson-like side trips whose purpose isn't always obvious, at least at first, but they are all so interesting I was happy to see where they led.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy In America that nearly all Americans are Cartesians, even though few of them know that a "Cartesian" is one who follows the philosophy of Rene Descartes. Cartesians are famous for following the maxim, "I think, therefore I am," which translates into little faith in experts and a deep belief in the ability of one's own mind to figure things out.

In short, Tocqueville was saying that most Americans would rather think on their own, look over all sides of things and draw their own conclusions than give credence to the so-called "authority" of the experts. One side of this coin is a trust in one's own mind, thoughts and abilities, and the other side is a deeply imbedded mistrust of experts, officials, politicians, bureaucrats or anyone else claiming any kind of superiority, credibility, class standing, celebrity or special credentials. The American founders wrote this philosophy right into our founding documents when they outlawed titles of nobility.

In a new book, Bunch of Amateurs, author Jack Hitt writes that this spirit of self-confident amateurism is central to the American character and that indeed, "the amateur's dream is the American Dream." This is an enjoyable book that reminded me a little of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers or Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks, and a lot of The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.
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