A "miscellany of human achievement", a "global citizen's guide to cul-ture emphasising the achievement of the non-Western world": sounds great, hey? Just the thing for the reference shelf. And when it is edited by eminent academics from the department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, such a volume should hit all the politically correct buttons.
The trouble is, as Shakespeare put it, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Professors Appiah and Gates set themselves a huge task, scanning both "high" - arts, religion and thought - and "low" - cooking, festivals, sport - cultures from all over the world and coming up with snappy little entries. If their research method - to ask academics which were the Top Ten things anyone should know about their country - was a little eyebrow-raising, the final product has gobsmacking gaps. It is ironic that those gaps, for people who have made their names blasting prejudice, should so reveal the compilers' bias. As with all biases, the errors run deep.
Accepting the jacket's disclaimer that "no work of this kind can be wholly exhaustive", it yet seems odd that a long entry for Harlem Globetrotters is not matched by any entry for the "beautiful game" of football, which worldwide commands much more support than one basketball team, however famous.
Other entries reinforce this America-centric skew, unsurprising in a volume at first destined for the US market, but less palatable here. For instance, we have Langston Hughes, black American poet but not Ted Hughes, white Yorkshireman; Jesus but not Moses and nothing about Sikhism; F Scott and Ella Fitzgerald but not Edward (translator of the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam); Schubert but not Schumann. Jazz and jazz musicians feature, as do some Persian musical terms, but indian music, pop music of any kind, or much about visual arts are low profile. A lot about runaway slaves, black consciousness movements, African cultural artefacts and Asian thought, lots about Jewishness and dozens of north American literary figures; relatively little on Western philosophy but nuggets about byways of history; Faust but no Beowulf; Japanese tanka poetry but not Tibetan thangka painting.
Clearly, there is some hierarchy of values here, but what? Hard not to believe that the volume, despite its grand pretensions to global citizenship, is not just as much centred in black American experience as Diderot's Encyclopedie was centred on the French high culture of the 18th century.
So, just as Western encyclopedias since Diderot have included just-as-much-about-the-rest-of-the-world as fits in at the edges, so the Appiah-Gates dictionary fits in as much as is peripheral to an American black studies degree. Which is fine and dandy, as long as you don't think that just because the Lapps and Berbers are in and the Basques and Tamils are not, that Lapps and Berbers are somehow more "cultural". Otherwise this is culture as Trivial Pursuit.