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Author Simon Winchester talks about China, his time as a foreign correspondent and the ongoing changes in the field of journalism

Open Book with Simon Winchester (copy)

Author and journalist Simon Winchester will appear Sept. 23 in conversation with retired U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris in the WIT Festival session, "America and China: Comes the Moment."

The Authors Guild Foundation will host its inaugural “Words, Ideas, and Thinkers Festival,” Sept. 22-25 at Shakespeare & Company, where it will bring together many of today’s best and brightest writers to explore the theme of “Reimagining America" through a series of thought-provoking conversations, presentations, panels and speeches.

Discussion topics include identity and belonging, reexamining history, climate change, the U.S. Supreme Court and visions for our future. Festival attendees will have the opportunity to interact with speakers in Q&A sessions, book signings and receptions. The speakers include Dan Brown, Simon Winchester, retired U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris, Geraldine Brooks, Jane Smiley, David Blight, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Elizabeth Kolbert, Douglas Preston, Linda Greenhouse, Nikolas Bowie, Ayad Akhtar and Susan Choi.

The WIT Festival is free. Session selections and tickets for hosted dinners are available to Giving Society members. Non-members will be able to select sessions and purchase tickets to hosted dinners beginning Aug. 15. For more information, visit authorsguild.org/the-foundation/wit-festival. The WIT Festival is co-sponsored by The Berkshire Eagle, the festival’s media sponsor.

On Friday, Sept. 23, acclaimed author Simon Winchester will speak in conversation with retired U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris in the WIT Festival session, "America and China: Comes the Moment."

Winchester is a world-traveling writer, editor, and journalist who has bylines from around the world and recently completed his 33rd book. He was born in England and became a U.S. citizen, and now divides his time between Sandisfield and New York. His books include "The Professor and the Madman," "The Men Who United the States," "The Map That Changed the World," "The Man Who Loved China," "A Crack in the Edge of the World," and "Land," all of which were New York Times best sellers.

He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire ‘for services to journalism and literature’ in the New Year Honours list for 2006. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, in October 2009.

The Eagle recently caught up with Winchester, who spoke about the upcoming WIT Festival.

Q: You’ll be speaking at the “WIT: Words, Ideas, and Thinkers Festival” to talk about our relationship with China. Considering the situation in Ukraine, do you think that our attention has turned too far away from the Pacific region?

SIMON WINCHESTER: If that is so — and I think it is not — it will be the second time it’s happened in the last 10 years. Because remember, during Obama’s presidency, there was a famous pivot away from fascination with the Middle East, and the thought we should pivot our interest to the Asia Pacific region. [But] the Middle East simply won’t release us from its grip, so we’re still fascinated and deeply involved [there]. But there is no getting away from the reality of the importance of China, commercially, culturally, socially and militarily. It is an enormous challenge for the United States if it wants to retain some sort of dominance in the world, or pole position, or premiere position or whatever you might like to call it.

What simply happened is yes, the invasion of Ukraine has politically taken our eyes off the ball. But militarily I think there are sensible planners in the various branches of the U.S. military who think about these things in the long term. Politically, unfortunately, one of the great shames of the United States is that it tends to think in four-year bursts because the administrations change rapidly. Whereas countries like China and certainly the Soviet Union and now Russia have the luxury of being able to think in the long term.

And the China question is a long-term problem. I think the sensible people who are not involved in the day-to-day Ukraine policy planning — leaving aside the overall implications for Europe as a whole, which is a somewhat separate entity — do we really consider that the relationship with China is the most important in the world today? …. Ukraine, tragic though it is and hugely important politically and I don’t mean to diminish it, but it’s something of a distraction because the main story is the U.S., China and the Asia Pacific region.

Q: You’ll be speaking with retired Admiral Harry Harris. Have you met before?

SIMON WINCHESTER: I did a book two or three books ago about the Pacific Ocean. I had lived in Hong Kong for a long time, so I knew the Pacific and traveled around a great deal, and was fascinated by it as a political, geological and geographical entity. I went over to Hawaii and came to know [Admiral Harris] when he was at the time the commander of the Indo-Pacific region, his area of responsibility was all of the Pacific Ocean. … I’m very pleased he is coming. I think it has potential to be a very interesting discussion because he will be taken away from the hot house, the echo chamber, that is Washington. Plus, he’s retired as well, but only recently. I think we’ll feel more able to speak candidly.

Q: You were living and working as a journalist in Hong Kong for 12 years just before the handover from British rule to China in 1997. Have you kept track of developments there?

SIMON WINCHESTER: Certainly. Very, very depressed about what is happening in Hong Kong. It was a unique entity, though in many ways a very frustrating place to be. The territory I was covering was vast, so I was more often out of Hong Kong than within it, but it was my home. I was happy there.

I knew the governor and the various senior people there, and I think the British administration all believed that the agreements hammered out between Beijing and London over the future of Hong Kong was that for 50 years after the handover — in other words, until June 2047 — it would remain different. It would retain the characteristics of the administration that it enjoyed under British colonial rule, not all of them but most of them. That has clearly not happened … as you well know, lots of people are in prison — many people I knew quite well — for trivial offenses and for objecting to this new and draconian rule. So, it’s a sad, melancholy place now. It should have been allowed to enjoy those 50 years. There was a treaty between the British and the Chinese [but] they weren’t as good as their word, and they’re ruining the place.

Q: You spent years as a foreign correspondent for a variety of publication like The Guardian and the London Sunday Times. In addition to your time in Hong Kong, you reported from South Asia, and about the U.S. You covered Watergate and the Falklands War and have written stories from all over the world. Do you ever miss being a newspaper reporter?

SIMON WINCHESTER: Yes and no. The moment I delivered my most recent book at the end of June, I thought, right, I want to go somewhere now. There’s an itch to scratch to be in some strange place. But now I’ve got the editing in front of me, so I probably won’t be able to until the end of the summer. … To get my jollies, I started the local newspaper here in Sandisfield, which is now astonishingly 13 years old. We’re not hemorrhaging money. We’re tight. We’re free. We’re monthly. And I get great pleasure in reporting for it. Five years ago when an asphalt truck lost its brakes and demolished the general store, I immediately went down there and I thought, I’m a reporter again, this is terrific! I love it. It never quite goes away.

Q: How has reporting changed? It seems the age of the kind of foreign reporting that you did has closed — with news organizations closing bureaus and more people getting their news from social media. How well do we know about what is happening in the world around us now? Have we lost something?

SIMON WINCHESTER: That’s essentially what this new book of mine is about. There are five main chapters and one of them is about the press in this new world. [The book is about] how do we get our knowledge, are we taught it or do we read it or watch it on television? Is it stored in libraries, or accessible through Google? And what effect is this having our brains, the fact that knowledge is so easily attainable now, that we don’t need to know it because it’s always there at the touch of a button? And what is the likely effect on thoughtfulness and ultimately on wisdom, and if this results in a diminution of it. A world without wise people, what will that look like?

I think you hit the nail on the head that we don't know the world nearly as well as we used to. … It's not entirely fanciful to note that a proportion of youngsters these days actually believe that the Vietnam War was fought against the Germans. And that kind of lack of knowledge of the world is, I think, only being exacerbated now because there's no need to go anywhere. There's no need to know much about anywhere. And the closing of bureaus that you talked about is in my view a tragedy. It’s a great shame.


The Authors Guild's Words, Ideas, and Thinkers Festival: Reimagining America

What: A three-day festival bringing together authors, academics, scientists, activists, book lovers and anyone interested in stimulating discourse, new ideas, and exploring potential solutions to challenging contemporary problems.

Where: Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox

When: Sept. 22-25

Registration, information: authorsguild.org/the-foundation/wit-festival/


All events are at Shakespeare & Company unless noted. Book signings to follow each 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. session.

Thursday, Sept. 22

5 p.m.: When Religion Meets Science with Dan Brown

6 p.m.: Reception

7 p.m.: Dinner at the Mount (ticketed event)

Friday, Sept. 23

10 a.m.: America and China: Comes the Moment with Simon Winchester and retired U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris

11:30 a.m.: What Animals Know with Geraldine Brooks and Jane Smiley

3 p.m.: Pop-up Reading: Letty Cottin Pogrebin, "Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy," at The Bookstore in Lenox

5 p.m.: Reexamining American History with David Blight and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

6 p.m: Reception

7 p.m.: Food Truck Party at Shakespeare & Company. Ticketed event

Saturday, Sept. 24

10 a.m.: On Climate Change with Elizabeth Kolbert and Douglas Preston

11:30 a.m.: Does the Supreme Court Have a Future? with Linda Greenhouse and Nikolas Bowie

2 p.m.: Pop-up Event: Wild Symphony, a reading and musical performance with Dan Brown

5 p.m.: Identity and Belonging with Ayad Akhtar and Susan Choi; moderated by Marie Arana

6 p.m.: Reception

7 p.m.: Dinner by the Bite at a private Stockbridge home. Ticketed event.

Sunday, Sept. 25

11 a.m.: Authors Guild Foundation Fundraising Event: Community Service. Written by Laura Pedersen and performed by Paula Ewin and David Rockefeller. Ticketed event.

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