We asked Simon Winchester to comment on his current work and ideas that have influenced him…
Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
We were preparing the iPad version of the newAtlantic book the other day, and I was filming a sequence while bobbing about in a small boat off the Statue of Liberty. It occurred me then that while the great cities of Europe were littered with statues of and memorials to heroic exploring men – Christopher Columbus in Genoa, Vasco de Gama near Lisbon, Leif Erikson in Reykjavik, John Cabot here in Bristol – the great memorial in New York is not to a man, but to an idea. The celebration of the notion of liberty as an icon of America, and the relative inconsequence of the men who helped engineer it seems entirely refreshing.
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
“To things give but a passing glance.” Joseph Needham, the accidental Sinologist, famously wrote this once, indicating his disdain for the material and his reverence for the intellectual and the sensual. As I get on and am confronted by the amount of things I have acquired in life, I do feel as though I should offer around everything except my books, and suspect I would miss almost nothing. A passing glance is all they truly merit.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
The Collision of Two Civilisations by Alain Peyrefitte remains for me the best of all studies of the first significant account of a real attempt at engagement between East and West in 1792 – an attempt that ended in failure, and which was born of a failure of each side to understand the other. The idea of East-ness and West-ness, so crucial for the coming century, is rigorously explored by this Gaullist diplomat, who, uniquely, had access to documents from both London and Peking, and is thus able to tell both sides of the story.
And finally, each year we ask everyone involved – audiences as well as speakers – one question. Charles Masterman, Liberal Party politician and journalist, asked in his book The Condition of England 100 Years Ago: “What will the future make of the present?” What is your answer to this?
Many will look back on our times with a loving nostalgia, and they will be quite misguided to do so – for the simplest and most clichéd of reasons – that the past truly is a foreign country, they do things differently there.