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Global culture - in bits and pieces


"The Dictionary of Global Culture," edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Alfred A. Knopf. 717 pages. $35

According to its dust jacket, this book provides 'what every American needs to know as we enter the next century.' The introduction expresses the more modest hope of offering readers 'a sampling of cultural contributions from around the world.' The editors, colleagues at Harvard University, invited experts in many fields to help select and define the alphabetically arranged topics that make up this dictionary - which, its editors disarmingly insist, is not meant to be exhaustive or even representative. One would hardly expect a single-volume book on a subject this vast, vague and ill-defined to be exhaustive. But such a book cannot avoid being taken as representative in some way of the 'global culture' it aims to reflect. Certainly, it covers a wide range of topics, from St. Augustine to the the Aztecs. Entries are detailed, accurate and solid, written in clear, nontechnical language for the general reader. Each entry encapsulates a good deal of information, be it a discussion of Jainism, a history of the Reformation, or a biography of Kenneth Kaunda. The editors' introduction is intelligent and inviting. The problem is what gets left out. Understandably, some less important Western figures will be omitted to make room for those from other cultures. But something odder seems to be going on here. It's very odd, for instance, to find an entry on Frances Brooke (an 18th-century British-Canadian writer), but none on Oscar Wilde. So, you look up Radclyffe Hall, Gore Vidal, Terence McNally, Edward Albee, and Tennessee Williams, only to find they too are missing The word homophobia pops to mind. But then, you look for the distinctly heterosexual Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill, and they're not there either. At second glance, it begins to look as if playwrights are the discriminated-against category, especially compared to the scads of entries on filmmakers from Elia Kazan to Denys Arcand. But then, among film makers, no mention of the Merchant-Ivory team (or of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for that matter), which once more arouses suspicions of homophobia! So you look up Noel Coward, Cole Porter, and Billy Strayhorn. Not there. But neither are the heterosexual composers Stephen Foster, Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, or Richard Rodgers. There are entries, however, on Miles Davis and Billie Holiday. What, no white musicians? Ah, there are plenty of them: Major classical composers from Bach to Bartok get their due; it's only the popular and jazz ones who are slighted. Women writers, especially minor ones, receive more than their due, while some of the greatest names in literature are absent, among them Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Frost, and Auden. There are entries on Sarah Orne Jewett, Eudora Welty, Joy Kogawa, Amy Tan, and Amy Lowell (maybe it's easier for regionalists, Asian-Americans, and lesbians), but none on Doris Lessing, Slmone Weil, Nadine Gordimer or Rebecca West. Being Japanese and a Nobel Prize winner was not enough to get Kenzaburo Oe into this particular party, but a place at the table was found for one very special publisher: Alfred A. Knopf. Although it contains much to interest and inform the general reader, this dictionary lacks an informing idea of what global culture is or might be. It offers, instead, the unsystematic, piecemeal approach to knowledge that has already undermined the value of an American higher education. Symptomatically, the entries aren't even cross-referenced with one another.

Merle Rubin writes for the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She has a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia.

Pub Date: 1/19/97

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