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September 2, 2017 Repository 207: Bon Mot | Book Review “The Amateur” Posted In: bon mots, books, perspective, philosophy, social critique

Do not be fooled by the title of this book “The Amateur” and its sweet cover with arty paint splotches. This is nothing short of a revolutionary manifesto of independent thinking. Much like the book “Skinny Bitch” was titled as such to lure the innocent, naive and possibly desperate diet-trodden reader to pick up/buy or borrow the book: it was a blood-filled vegan manifesto designed to convert people to stop supporting the meat industry and eat plants and plant products only. Similarly “The Amateur” successfully makes the case for denying the expert the rights to hold court in making meaningful decisions for society, school and otherwise.

“‘Expert’ becomes a pretext to say what you like within a certain pretext. It’s an implicit denial of open-mindedness, of being inquisitive, of stretching your horizon…..Experts can’t drop their professional guard; an esoteric language sets them apart, gains entry into exclusive professional bodies, onto expert panels, ones strictly off-limits to rank amateurs, unless they’re the audience.” – Andy Merrifield

It seems Merrifield was inspired to write the book, more out of urgency than inspiration, when his mother was moved out of a family home because of the “expert and professional” urban designers trying to adjust the London suburbs where she lived. These experts caused great heartache and stress in a community, and to no comfortable or obvious outcome. He has also worked as a professor/professional and an amateur. It’s from this outlook that he explores the idiocy of bowing to experts whether they are professional artists, urban planners, historians or politicians. The more expert someone is, the more likely they will share a woefully irrelevant idea to the table from their position of expertise. Unless of course they read this book and realize the importance of the proverbial fresh eye of the non-professional. Our contributions lie best in what we love.

The word amateur means to love. To love what one does. How has it evolved to being a person who does something on the side, not for profession, and not in a serious way? To be an amateur is actually to see with love, to see more clearly and to not be bogged down by the system of the professional, the system of repression, the system of acceptance. Seen this way, isn’t an amateur precisely the innovator businesses clamors for? How do you create innovation while hiring professionals from the world of finance, art, politics or design? The amateur voice has never been more welcome and urgent.

“This is a beautiful, inspiring rendering of what amateurism is all about. It’s to uphold a vision of reality that’s more expansive and eclectic, that isn’t hampered by the conservatism of narrow expertise, preoccupied as that is with defending one’s scholarly turf. To be an amateur is to express the ancient French word: love of, a person who engages for the pleasure of it. In many instances amateurs are more competent than professionals because they are more intimately connected to what they do. What they do is who they are.” – Andy Merrifield

Merrifield writes about how even from a small age we are implanted with this idea of professionalism, and that it takes our entire adult life, with much difficulty, to reconsider our thinking and change our perspective. The last chapter is a call for an “Amateur Revolution”, where he knows the revolution will begin small but invariably become big – amateur politics is the antithesis of professional democracy, and this is something worth considering deeply. He truly believes, and I do too, that if amateur means to hold and confront contradictions – one is this AND that – versus the professional or expert where this is ONLY that, than the way of the amateur must be our siren’s call moving forward.

There’s never been a time where it’s more important to think for yourself, AND to consider the difference in others than now. As an amateur one can do this, as a professional you are required to fall hook, line and sinker to the heavily trodden data points of the past. Having worked in academia, and moved through a part of his life as a “professional” he has a valid opinion. I, on the other hand, have had a gnawing feeling over the years in my gut and rejected pursuing advanced degrees, whether in art, psychology, education or public policy (all programs I have been accepted to as an advanced degree or “professional” candidate). I will never know if my instincts were correct, I will only know with relief that I have found this disciple of amateurism, and that this really is a thing. To be on the outside is never to be without knowing. In fact it is from this vantage point that things become much more clear and true.

To all the amateurs I know in my life, whether artist, perfumer, writer, gardener, scientist or historian – carry on the work you are doing, share your thoughts and experiences and most definitely read this book. It will change your life.

Thank you for reading!

Post script: It is only once in a blue moon that I pick up a book and fall head over heels for the author’s voice, intention and message. It turns out he’s written another book several year ago, which I’ve not read yet, titled “The Wisdom of Donkeys”. I only found that out after I read “The Amateur” book, and see fully the connection we share. I’ve always loved donkeys over horses – their humility and patience continually win me over the horse and their regality. I’ve never been the girl who loves horses, but the one who loves donkeys.

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4 Comments

  1. Lpuise Sheils • September 2, 2017

    You have no idea the degree to which your book review resonates with me. I have just gotten over the shock of defending my interdisciplinary MA thesis in Hispanic Studies before two such "Professionals": the External Examiner teaches at the Université du Québec à Montréal (Département d'Études littéraires); the Internal Examiner had been the Hispanic Studies Graduate Programme Director at my home university during most of my graduate studies. My thesis is titled "Unexpected Transgressions and Continua in Julio Cortázar´s 'Axolotl'". It relates the interpretation of a fantastic short story based on concepts taken mostly from analytic philosophy and occasionally from phenomenology. The objective is to provide an example of how philosophy can contribute to bridging the gap between the humanities and the sciences, the intuitive and the rational, the fantastic and the empirical. The implicit hypothesis is that if analytic philosophy can be used in a plausible interpretation of a Cortazarian short story, such bridging can, more generally, be within our grasp.
    The research concludes that philosophy is up to the challenge.

    The topic is highly unusual and I had chosen my supervisors carefully: both are open-minded multi-dimensional thinkers who encourage creative thinking. During the two-hour defense, only the last question by the External Examiner actually dealt with the 150-page thesis: "Could you explain to me the meaning of the title of your thesis"? A rhetorical question it was. I answered it the way of an Amateur, honestly. Cortázar transgressed literary genres and traditions; he believed intuition opened the door to a reality that was beyond metaphysics' grasp. I intended to transgress the transgressor´s belief by using classical metaphysics in an analysis of what is perhaps the most "professionally" analyzed of his fantastic short stories. My answer did not go over well. The Internal Examiner, for his part, had not understood the thesis in the least, and all of his lengthy comments focused on Tzvetan Todorov's 1970 "Introduction to Fantastic Literature" which deals explicitly with European 19th century works of the genre, not with Latin American mid-20th century Neofantastic pieces. The additional 2-hour+ discussion that followed between the examiners and my HS Supervisor returned a "Major revision" verdict which would have gutted the thesis. (My Philosophy supervisor was in Seattle making a presentation at a conference; he does not speak Spanish, the language in which the defense took place; the thesis exists in both Spanish and English.) The thesis was broken down to two Research Papers and I will be granted the MA degree on that basis.

    Ironically, the External Examiner concluded the following in a 2015 article on Interdisciplinarity in the humanities: "The researcher who chooses to cross disciplinary boundaries is taking more significant risks than if he remained in his traditional field, the conditions of his research as well as the diffusion of his results should therefore be improved" (my translation). Now there's professionalism at work: the theory, not the practice. Reply


    • Catherine Haley Epstein • September 2, 2017

      Indeed! A complete match regarding the negative consequences of professionalism, albeit I'm sorry to hear of your troubles. We need to hear those cross discipline discussions and explorations, it's exactly how we move to new places in mind and spirit. Thank you for sharing this tante Louise! I hope I can read the digested format when ready to share, it sounds terrific! Reply


  2. Linda • September 4, 2017

    Elon Musk has mastered four industries. Anything worthwhile I ever did involved stretching,crossing into new uncharted territory. I have many "amateur" interests, will see what the next big life shift has in store. My grandfather was a true Renaissance man, Spoke many languages, played music and composed. Wrote books, had massive gardens. Barrister, founder of the Canada Council.

    I look forward to reading this book! Thanks, Catherine Haley! Reply


    • Catherine Haley Epstein • September 5, 2017

      Thank you Linda! Great examples, and how terrific your grandfather inspired you as such! Mine too was an investment banker, then engineer and farmer. And Canadian:) The West Coast too has always been a lovely place to knock around genres, jobs, boundaries and experiences. I can't wait to hear more about your adventures. All my best, and thank you for reading!! Reply


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