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The Contemporary Pacific 14.1 (2002) 249-251



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Book Review

The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia


The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia, edited by Brij V Lal and Kate Fortune. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8248-2265-X; xxxvi + 664 pages, illustrations, glossary, indexes, CD-ROM. US$115.

Hefty to hold, and visually striking to behold, this contemporary encyclopedia is valuable in terms of the wealth of current, detailed information it contains, yet also somewhat awkward in its organization. In spite of the slight difficulty in maneuvering through the pages, The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia would be a useful reference guide in the bookcase of anyone interested in the Pacific Islands.

As stated in the first paragraph of the preface, "This volume is the latest, and assuredly not the last, attempt to understand the remarkable world of the Pacific islands in all its variety and complexity through a range of perspectives contributed by scholars across the world. It brings together discrete or scattered information on the major aspects of Pacific island life, including the physical environment, peoples, history, politics, economy, society and culture" (xv). This mammoth project was a decade in the making and one can easily understand why. The sheer logistics of pulling together a volume of such weight, with some two hundred contributors, and including maps, several hundred photographs, cross-listings, a glossary, and more, is mind-boggling. This was an ambitious undertaking and is a remarkable accomplishment. In general, the information is comprehensive and current. The contributors, who represent a variety of perspectives, in most cases write with profound professional knowledge and stylistic finesse.

Before one even opens the cover, it is clear that this is not a typical encyclopedia. The attempt to be exhaustive and up-to-date is palpable. The mix of bright, colorful images on the glossy dust jacket sets the tone. There are pictures of the painted face of a Huli dancer in her feather headdress and shell necklaces, a man from New Caledonia squatting in front of his bountiful catch of tuna with rubber boots and plastic items in the background, an aerial vista of a "typical atoll" in Tonga, a detail of a floral appliqué quilt from the Cook Islands, and the bright orange, lacy pattern of a yellow hydrocoral Distichopora species. In other words, between these covers one will find everything from the traditional to the contemporary, the natural to the hand-crafted, and perspectives that illustrate distant outlines and close-up detail.

Once one opens the cover, the array of information is astonishing. One can [End Page 249] learn about everything from international law in the Pacific Ocean to Perfect Beat magazine, from land alienation in New Caledonia to the Guano Act of the United States, from ocean trenches to ocean anchovies, and from nuclear testing to domestic violence. In addition, there is a section in which thirty-seven island groups are profiled with standard information on such things as size, population, official languages, literacy rates, currency, constitutional status, principal export earnings, and so forth. There are also valuable color pictures of flags of the Pacific Islands.

Of particular interest are extensive lists of individuals about whom substantial biographical details and professional accomplishments are supplied. This includes, for example, 51 Pacific Island writers, 35 European writers on the Pacific Islands, 24 missionaries to the region, 22 Pacific Island athletes, and 60 political figures. A minor confusion, however, is the inconsistency with which these lists are organized. While the Pacific Island writers, European writers, and missionaries are listed alphabetically within their appropriate sections, the athletes and political figures are listed chronologically according to their dates of birth. Yet, without knowing the year of someone's birth (a detail one might, in fact, be searching for in the encyclopedia), it is difficult to locate anyone.

The editors very consciously addressed the quandary that, by writing an encyclopedia, they chose an old-fashioned genre (albeit with CD-ROM attached) in today's contemporary world. Painfully aware of this conundrum, they listened to advice from the editorial board and decided to eschew the customary...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9464
Print ISSN
1043-898X
Pages
pp. 249-251
Launched on MUSE
2002-01-01
Open Access
No
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