Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Flattening Culture

I don't travel much, and even less to tourist-y places, but enough to have become struck by some flattening aspects of mass travel culture. Palm frond-covered verandas are a near universal, whether palms are native plants or not. Souvenirs are increasingly indistinguishable from one place to the next -- the same bamboo toy spinning-top is sold in the village of Bali on Crete and on Bali in Indonesia. Probably produced somewhere in West Africa from Phillipino raw materials. I even wonder if there isn't a closed economy of recycled souvenir objects: that wooden bust of Ben Franklin your uncle bought in Philadelphia in '52 has long been charred, re-carved, stained, and feathered as a fake Maconde warrier. Worst of all is travel reading. I have never learned the lesson of bringing enough books with me to read, and end up, sure enough, in some shop with half-a-shelf of trashy novels and the handful of officially sanctioned tourist guides to the local monuments and ruins, translated into an English idiom I barely understand even when the editing is reasonable. But there has been a recent conflagration of these two literary genres, in that travel novels have been less dominated by the Harold Robbins/Jackie Collins and John Grisham schools, and increasingly dominated by the post-Dan Brown apocalyptic/ancient conspiracy genre, placing non-fictions books on the same half-shelf with a few speculative archaeological tracts -- books by retired professors from here or there writing in a field outside of their professional specializations books which could not get published by their local university press, but do get published by the national archaeological press in tourists editions in editions with photos rendered in the style of a 1962 issue of Soviet Life. We now learn about the Mayan invention of television and the Knossan discovery of cutlery, all part of the massive conspiracy behind our present troubles. Great stuff for idle reading, but time to get back to composing.

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