The Dictionary of Global Culture

In This Review

The Dictionary of Global Culture

Edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Alfred A. Knopf, 1997
717 pp. $35.00
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This book begins from the reasonable premise that most encyclopedias and studies of global culture tend to be Eurocentric, and that most people (Americans, perhaps, in particular) know very little about cultural traditions of other societies. The authors therefore polled scholars from different parts of the world and asked them to list their society's most important cultural contributions; the present volume is a compilation of the responses they received.

While the dictionary has many interesting, amusing, and occasionally surprising entries, it suffers from a central conceptual problem. The editors want this to be a guide to an emerging global culture, that is, a culture that is shared across traditional cultural boundaries. Much of the book, however, is simply a catalog of the globe's cultural artifacts, without regard to their importance or influence on other parts of the world. To have focused on truly global (that is, transnational) culture, the editors would have had to make some difficult choices, since not all cultural artifacts travel well or have an influence on the world at large. Non-Brazilians devour samba music and Beethoven is played in Japanese department-store elevators, something that cannot be said, say, for Chinese opera. The authors avoid the need to prioritize and pass judgments on the importance of these items by using a dictionary form, and by admitting up front the incompleteness of their list. Even so, some of the choices are odd: the Nation of Islam merits a page and a half, while Pentecostalism and Mormonism, easily two of the most important transnational cultural forces today, are missing.