Eric Weiner: The world is starving for wisdom

Journalists should teach people how to navigate the ocean of information

Wisdom is something very different form information; it is very different from knowledge too. Wisdom is related not to the existential question “what” but rather “how”. How can we become better citizens, friends and people? I hope that my new book can somehow contribute to the revival of this kind of philosophy of wisdom. This is the role that philosophy used to have and should have - once again - in people's lives, journalist and author Eric Weiner says in an interview to BTA.

Mr Weiner, what do you know about Bulgaria? Give us the best and the worst thing you have heard about the country.

I have to admit that I know very little about Bulgaria. What I know is more or less impressionistic and not that positive, if I am to be honest. For example, I am aware that your country is very low on the United Nations' World Happiness Report ranking: 97th out of 156 nations, right before Cameroon and behind Ghana. Of course, this is not to say that all Bulgarians despair or that Bulgaria is not a wonderful place. It only means that you have untapped potential.

I think that Bulgaria is a country at a crossroads. It is European, of course, but at the edge of the old continent and with one foot, or at least one toe, in Asia. These types of “transitional, crossroad places” face more challenges but also have bigger potential.

You have said that “one's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things” and that the most important thing is to discover the soul of a place. How have your travels impacted your way of thinking?

In two ways - through the perspective gained by leaving home and then returning. Think of it as a pair of glasses. Imagine that you have been wearing the same glasses since the day you were born and you have never taken them off. You would probably not even be aware that you are wearing glasses. You would just think that is how the world looks. Now imagine that someone takes off your glasses and offers you a new pair that allows you to see more clearly. This is the value of travelling. And this is what I call a new way of seeing things.

But first we need to acknowledge our prejudices. News organisations (at least those in the US) used to have “foreign correspondents”. Now they have “international correspondents”. I believe this new terminology is a mistake. If you are, let's say, a Bulgarian correspondent in Berlin that would make you foreign correspondent because Germany is a foreign country to you. These are just facts and we are doing a disservice to ourselves and our audience by pretending to be something else. That said, and this is critical, we should also strive to overcome this foreignness and find the things that we have in common with the other person.

Yet another Himalayan Writers Workshop in the valley of Kathmandu is on the horizon. The participants in this creative writing seminar, organised and led by you, will seek inspiration through readings and analyses of classical works in the travel notes genre. They will also write their own texts, discuss the difficulties often encountered in writing travel books and methods to handle them. What kind of people attend your creative writing seminars? Can a seminar alone turn one into a writer?

This will be my fourth year holding the Himalayan Writers Workshop. To me, this is the most important and the best time of the year. All kinds of people come to the seminars. Most of them are not professional writers. We have school teachers, lawyers, engineers, nurses, etc. What they share is the desire to write and write better. A workshop cannot make you a writer. You have to do the heavy-lifting yourself in order to reach that goal. But it can help in improving your skills and strengthening your motivation.

The Power of Place: In Search of Lost Wisdom was the topic of your presentation at the 6th News Agencies World Congress. This is also the subject of your new book. Tell us a bit about the process of writing it.

The book is entitled The Socrates Express. It is my fourth book and I believe my most provocative and best work to date. It is about the deep hunger that many of us feel nowadays - hunger that (paradoxically) grows with the increase of the information wave that inundates us in modern days.

I believe that is the hunger for wisdom. Wisdom is something very different form information; it is very different from knowledge too. Wisdom is related not to the existential question “what” but rather “how”. How can we become better citizens, friends and people? I hope that my new book can somehow contribute to the revival of this kind of philosophy of wisdom. This is the role that philosophy used to have and should have - once again - in people's lives.

In this day and age, people are overwhelmed by information. What is the future of news in your opinion? What is the future of journalists?

In some aspects, the role of journalists should remain the same. Their job is to tell stories, reveal information and announce facts. They should continue to do that as honestly as possible.

On the other hand, I think that the role of journalists is evolving. As you said, people experience an information overload. In the future, the job of journalists will not be to add to the ocean of information but to help people make sense of it, navigate it.

There is too much junk information out there, just as there is junk food. Journalists should simultaneously put on the hats of a master chef and a quality control inspector so that people can be provided with the “most nutritious” information possible.

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Eric Weiner is an author, journalist and traveller. He specialised journalism at Stanford University on scholarship provided by Knight Foundation. He has served as a foreign correspondent for the National Public Radio and as a correspondent for The New York Times and has worked in New Delhi, Jerusalem and Tokyo and reported from over 40 countries. He has contributed content for the Los Angeles Times, BBC, The New Republic, Best American Travel Writing, etc. Weiner has authored international bestsellers such as Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World; Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine; and The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World's Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley.

On 13 June, Weiner visited Sofia to be the main speaker at the 6th News Agencies World Congress, organised and hosted by the BTA.

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