This enormous book (of 717 pages) is a work of great ambition, in that it proposes to widen the scope of traditional encyclopedia to a global dimension for the first time. But it is also refreshingly modest, as it recognizes from the outset two fundamental problems for all dictionaries or encyclopedia—those of exhaustiveness and of representativeness. In the end, its editors’ only claim is to introduce the reader, "however haphazardly, to a few of the central ideas and objects in many of the world’s civilizations [which] is, we believe, a good beginning for our lifelong travel through the range of human cultures."
One of the great pleasures of any compilation of information organized alphabetically, such as this, is the surreal juxtapositions which result. For example, we can find Dickinson, Emily (American poet and letter writer), Diddley, Bo (African-American rock and roll singer and guitarist), and Diderot, Denis (French encyclopedist, philosopher, novelist, dramatist and art critic) side by side on page 181. And the greatest value of an innovative approach is the quantity of new or arcane information which emerges. One of my favorite entries, for example, is on Severo Sarduy (b. 1936), the Cuban poet, novelist, critic and painter, which begins: "Sarduy is best known for his novel Cobra (1972), which describes the transvestite motorcycle gang, The Gasoline Girls, that Sarduy and art critic Roland Barthes formed, which drove around Paris committing semi-terrorist acts."
Aside from such diversions, the dictionary is an astonishing source of knowledge in ethnic languages and cultures worldwide and over a span of many centuries. Culture is taken to include not only art, literature, film and music, but also politics, law and religion, performance (e.g., gelede, Ghost Dance, Martha Graham), and significant historical events. However, as soon as the editors reach beyond their summary descriptions of interesting people, which are consistently fascinating, into the significance of, for example, the Dreyfus Affair, the Opium Wars, or Tiananmen Square, the limitations of their methodology become serious. None of these events can be understood outside their historical context, but this book is clearly incapable of providing an adequate survey of French and Chinese histories, let alone Lithuanian, Yoruba, or Cherokee. Perhaps we must recognize, in our supposedly post-modern world, that the totalizing attempts of a dictionary or encyclopedia to cover the whole range of knowledge in a comprehensive, non-arbitrary manner are doomed to failure. The "culture wars" that have raged across college campuses and intellectual journals in recent years are being fought over territory that no longer exists in the old definitions of national or ideological borders.
For us in Pittsburgh, it is most instructive to compare the western "canon" represented by the names inscribed around the cornice (or more properly, fascia) of Carnegie Institute in the original buildings from 1895 and 1907, with the new trans-national approach of Appiah and Gates. Whereas the founders of Carnegie Institute relegated "primitive" and aboriginal cultures to four bronze relief tablets from 1917 at the base of the corner flagpole, where they are introduced to the (supposedly Western) concepts of Art, Literature, Science and Music, the editors of this book are fully cognizant of the creative contributions of Sequoyah (American Indian leader and inventor of the Cherokee alphabet). It was left to the contemporary artist Lothar Baumgarten to commemorate that great figure in 1988, when he created the glass ceiling in the Hall of Sculpture which incorporates the syllabary invented by Sequoyah.
And of course, in the most fundamental difference between the canon-makers of today and those of 100 years ago, Appiah and Gates admit the existence of women, a gesture not thought necessary in those dark ages.
Mark Francis is chief curator of The Andy Warhol Museum.