Can any of this be true? Jack Hitt celebrates the amateurs among us

You might say that Jack Hitt loves the crackpots, the people out tinkering in their garages coming up with an invention that just may someday knock the ordinary world right off its axis out of sheer amazement. And now Hitt, of New Haven, is the author of a new book, Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character. Most days, he’s a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. He occasionally contributes to the public radio program, This American Life. His book, Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain, was made into a motion picture, “The Way,” directed by Emilio Estévez and starring Martin Sheen. He also has a one-man show, “Making Up the Truth,” which, like his other work, very nearly answers the question, “Is any of this true?”

He will be appearing at R. J. Julia Booksellers on Thursday, May 17, at 8 p.m., to read from and sign copies of his books, and tell stories that promise to make you laugh. In the meantime, here’s what he has to say about the crackpots among us:

What is it about the American spirit that inspired you to write A Bunch of Amateurs?

 I was sent to spent time with the Kansas City Space Pirates once. Their leader is a computer consultant, Brian Turner, who with a team of other garage inventors has competed in a NASA amateur contest involving power beamers.  (Imagine a plane with no fuel on board but powered by a laser beam from the ground.) This idea of power beaming, though, is really in service of dream called the space elevator—a 60,000 mile long ribbon built of carbon nanotubes, an almost sci-fi idea to get us in and out of deep space with ease. After spending a week with Turner, it became obvious that the golden age of amateurs was not some romantic time that has passed but a cycle that always comes back around.

When did you know this was going to be a book? Was there a sort of tipping point when you realized you had enough of a collection of risk-takers?  

Not really a question of “enough.” The problem came from the other direction. There was always too much. The problem was cutting it down. So I shaped the book around a number of larger concepts of amateurism. In the end, Brian Turner and the Kansas City Space Pirates–as good as they are as a story–didn’t make the cut.

As a raconteur extraordinaire, you’ve made your name writing about people with crazy passions and what some might call a loopy view of life. How did your upbringing lead you to this kind of fascination?

Actually the entire book was born when an editor in New York asked if I had ever noticed that many of the figures in my stories were self-invented cranks who actually had stumbled upon some brilliant, new or cool idea. I hadn’t, but one conversation led to another, and one day I found myself isolated, fittingly, in my own garage, writing a book about garage eccentrics. Maybe, as somebody has already said, the whole thing is a sly justification for a lifetime of freelancing.

Is there a particular amateur in this book who really seized you with amazement and delight?

So many, but I had a blast with Meredith Patterson. She’s a computer programmer whom I met in San Francisco. In between raves and visits to the tattoo parlor, she taught herself bio-engineering. Originally working with a salad spinner for a centrifuge, a portable cooker from an RV for an incubator, and a few chemicals she extracted from shampoo and sex lube, she built a lab where we spent a week fiddling with her latest project: inserting the glow in the dark gene from a jellyfish into a bacterium that we could then culture and use to make yogurt that glowed in the dark. Glo-gurt.  A number of DIY labs for amateur biologists are popping up all around the country right now. I suspect that there will lots of hand-wringing and bed-wetting from the Post-9/11 TSA types, but frankly, it all felt to me like I was witnessing the re-birth of a bunch of 4-H Clubs.

This book reads like it was lots of fun to write. But of course no book is all fun and games. Were there things you had to leave out, stories you needed to leave untold?

Fun and games? I wish the desire to write only upon my worst enemies. As to what got left out? I actually did write down all the panicky assignments I sent my several assistants off to research. Here’s a partial list: homemade gasoline distillers, DIY submariners, amateur chefs, open-source anything, local “historians,” the newest religions, and the latest version of creation science. Also, self-taught dark-matter theorists, ethnic innovators coining new races, the ongoing jetpack dream, the last 500 patent applications, high school kids building nuclear reactors in the suburbs, the latest Howard Finster, the latest Steve Jobs, the latest Lana Del Rey, and anything to which the prefix wiki- has been added. But, wait, I also needed to about this year’s MacArthur genius grant winners, amateur porn pioneers, pranksters, weekend warriors curdling into militias, storm chasers, un-credentialed archaeologists, cutting-edge agronomists in the medical marijuana field, self-appointed terrorist hunters, that whole smart mob business, competitive eaters, amateur rocketeers, micro-brewing dudes, top fan fiction writers, horticultural pioneers, latter-day radio pirates, and the surprisingly hefty crowd of people describing themselves as time travelers, some of whom, curiously, have recently disappeared. Compared to these research assistants, Don Quixote had it easy.


Sandi Shelton
12:51 PM (7 hours ago)

to Jack


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