Books: Lost for words in a global village

Jonathon Green is unconvinced by a confused attempt to compensate for Western bias
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The Dictionary of Global Culture

edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr

Allen Lane, pounds 25

Some years ago a pillar of the Western canon suggested that "When the Zulus write a War and Peace, then I shall take their culture seriously." This declaration of the Dead White European Male-in-waiting received a shriek of predictable opprobrium. The row passed, but now comes a book- length rebuttal in a compendium that declares itself "the global citizen's guide to culture, emphasising the achievement of the non-Western world".

It is, state the editors, a "sampler of cultural contributions from around the globe". Armed with this work, they suggest, it will be possible to appreciate that there is more to cultural life than Eurocentricity. In some 700 pages, they list around 1,200 people, places and things. So does it work?

The primary problem is that, whatever the authors may claim, this is not a dictionary. If anything, it is an encyclopedia. The two models began moving in their separate ways around 1500 and the line has been drawn for a very long time. That said, America has always clung more keenly to extraneous facts in its dictionaries: witness the row when Webster's Third (1961) tossed aside some of its "encyclopaedic" information. But, detail aside, this is not a dictionary. (One detail: is it very nit-picking to rail at their dating of Johnson's to 1786, a mere 29 years late?)

So how does it stand as a reference work? Would you refer to it, and for what? Here, alas, the answer is: no. In the first place, there's very little here not in the Britannica. That aside, it fails in too many ways. The problem seems to be a lack of real direction. The greatest reference works, for all their proclaimed neutrality, rarely fail to work from an agenda. Johnson's definitions show a man hell-bent on underpinning High Anglican Toryism; Webster's on proclaiming an independent American English and the New England Protestantism of his peers.

Thrown together by committee - its contents determined by a poll of academics - this work bears all the hallmarks of unguided omnivorousness. Do entries represent the best of each culture, the best contributions to each, or simply cultures you didn't appreciate? As entry follows entry, devoid of an underlying scheme, one can only wonder.

There is no reading list; equally sinful, no cross-references nor index. The writing, presumably aimed at first-year US students, is simple and relentlessly upbeat. The relativism that underpins the entries extends into the text. Poor old Rudyard Kipling may be disinterred for the ritual smacking, but such as the Ayatollah Khomeini sail through their careers unchallenged. "My enemy's enemy is my friend" is no way to work.

Gates and Appiah have set themselves a nightmare task. But for all their promises of non-Western emphasis, it just ain't so. The preponderance of individuals are First World; the Third is all too often found as legends, religious festivals and geographical entities. To list the absentees is pointless; choice in such a selection is indeed relative. If they feel that such individuals as Bob Marley, Reverend Moon and R K Narayan aren't worth a look-in, so be it. But their allocations of space are nothing if not idiosyncratic. The bossa nova outweighs Mao Zedong and the Holocaust is rivalled by Hong Kong's chop-socky movie business.

In the end, this golden-wonder book of relativism is an essay in wishful thinking. The real global culture as experienced, and for whatever bizarre reason lusted after, in the non-Western world is that of Coca-Cola, satellite TV, McDonald's, rock'n'roll, the Internet and Hollywood. None of which are to be found here. It is the KFC outlet in Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley; it is, in a tiny village in Kerala, a 20ft high, lovingly hand- painted portrait of Phil Collins. The fantasy behind this "dictionary" - the one agenda it may have - is that the wider world should embrace the glorious diversity of its own cultures. As we know and are fools to deny, the reality is less encouraging.