The Rural We: Karen Christensen
If we — as individuals or as a country — reach a better understanding of China in the future, we may have Karen Christensen to thank for it. The Great Barrington, Mass. resident is the founder and CEO of Berkshire Publishing Group, which has recently announced that it will produce an English version of the Encyclopedia of China in collaboration with the China Publishing Group. The two companies also announced the founding of an International Editorial Center in Beijing and New York. It is just one of the many ambitious and diverse projects Christensen has worked on. “I have a mixed portfolio,” admits the author, business owner and activist. Indeed.
I grew up in the Silicon Valley, but I was always looking for wider horizons. During college — I was an English major— on an exchange visa in London, I was sent by a secretarial agency to a publishing company, and that’s where my career began. I worked at Blackwell’s, a book publisher and retailer, and lived in London through my early 30s, and started my family there.
In 1992 I worked for the widow of T.S. Eliot and got a contract to write an environmental handbook called Home Ecology. It was a surprise success, and then I was commissioned to write another book about the search for community. I came back to the states with my children, ending up in Great Barrington and started Berkshire Publishing with my husband, an anthropologist. The company published encyclopedias, and the most important was the encyclopedia of modern Asia. That took us to China and Japan, and began a whole new phase of my life; I became so interested in China. In the last ten years, post-divorce, I took over the business, and now we’re more known for books on China and sustainability than other topics. We’re also focusing more on food issues.
The Encyclopedia of China Publishing House and U.S.-based Berkshire Publishing Group announced the translation into English of ‘China Encyclopedia USA’ at this year’s London Book Fair. Celebrating here (from l. to r.): Liu Zhong, director of the International Cooperation Department of China Publishing Group; Jiang Jun, v-p of China Publishing Group; Karen Christensen, CEO of Berkshire Publishing; and Jiang Lijun, assistant president, Encyclopedia of China Publishing House. Photo: ECPH
I was just recently in London for the launch of the joint project with The Encyclopedia of China Publishing House, under the working title China Encyclopedia USA. It’s being developed in parallel with the second edition of Berkshire Publishing’s own Encyclopedia of China. We started building the relationship with this Chinese publishing group 10 years ago. It takes time!
I’m very much interested in leadership and economic development. I’ve recently formed the Barrington Institute, a local nonprofit set up to do projects with a big mission and to do good.
The tagline for both of these companies is “Knowledge for our common future.” One way we can do that is to reinstate the Dowmel Lectures that were so popular here. People really miss them. We also started the train campaign and have been working hard on that. My dream has been to develop something here with a larger footprint that would bring attention to the area through new ideas and global thinking.