Sunday, September 08, 2013

[Books] Book Look: Radio Shangri-La, by Lisa Napoli

Book Look: Radio Shangri-La, by Lisa Napoli: The bulk of the interest in this book comes from the author’s adventures managing an independent radio station in the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan. Let's take a moment to talk about Bhutan.

Since time immemorial Bhutan was isolated geographically. It became something of a Buddhist fundamentalist monarchy. Even when interaction was possible, it was held at bay in an effort to keep the people on the proper holy path. This was possible not just because of its geographic isolation but also because there was little value strategically or in natural resources. A traveller might wander in, admire the views, then move on without a reason to staying in contact. However, the world cannot be kept at bay forever.

In an attempt to not lose itself in the global cyclone of popular progressive culture, Bhutan has taken to monitoring, limiting, and controlling much of its connections to the outside world. What is permitted as far as contact and behavior is determined by the government in accord with something they refer to as Gross National Happiness. In other words, instead of allowing collective individual and economic forces shape their country, they will assess the value of any technology or cultural development that appears with respect to its effect on the Happiness of the nation and then decide whether to allow, forbid, or modify and control it.

It is a naively appealing idea, also vaguely utopian, and we know where that can lead. In some ways it draws comparison to the Amish, who do similar evaluations with respect to the possibility of things encouraging pridefulness. It also brings to mind the appeal of what might be called the nanny-state to a certain mindset: the good-intentioned banning certain kinds of food or entertainment or other “consenting adult” style behaviors that percolates through the West. Of course, such precepts never gain much more than a toehold in the West because we’re too varied. Cultural control and diversity are mortal enemies. To have success with something like Gross National Happiness you need a monoculture -- a broad and deep agreement on what actually constitutes happiness. The Bhutanese have that and it seems to work well for them.

In any event, as knowledge and information drifted in from outside through various sources -- not the least of which elite families sending their children to schools in India and the West -- modernizations followed. One such modernization was the creation of an independent radio station, which is central to our story. An experienced media executive, Lisa Napoli, through a chance meeting or two, found herself flying halfway around the world to run this new radio station. It was quite and adventure and Napoli reveals it in a very engaging manner.

There is much cultural substance and event here, both large and small. Napoli has to gently induce a stronger professionalism to her colleagues, in an atmosphere that is more like a college radio station run by volunteers, without offending the more personal way of life of the Bhutanese. The portrayals of the young station employees and their almost adolescent love of Western pop culture is endearing. But there are also larger, more complex events. The first ever public elections, and the associated campaigns are occurring. And later, one of the friend/colleagues from her visit manages to scam her way to America in a romantic search for a dream, and for time disappears from sight.

I would have preferred more in depth examination of these events, the conflicts and motivations behind them -- they seem like a gold mine for observational and philosophical commentary -- but that’s not the direction Napoli chose. The subtitle of the book is “What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth.” Napoli spends a fair amount of time on her emotional self-discovery. This is not necessarily a bad thing as we see her draw on a number of experiences and thrown in a touch Buddhist fatalism to come to terms with how her life has been shaped by her past and her decisions. This didn't interest me so much because I am old and have already internalized most of her lessons.

Should you read Radio Shangri-la? Sure. I liked it and this is one instance where I think most readers would enjoy it more than I did, that is to say most readers would probably appreciate the biographical personalization Napoli provides. It is written with warmth and delicacy and is never overly serious. Yes, I think you’d enjoy it.

Interestingly, Napoli is co-guiding a tour to Bhutan in 2014. It sounds amazing, but the fact that total overall cost for me would be something well north of ten grand, I’m going to have to pass. I’ll have to wait for an invitation when they need someone to teach them to how write books that don't sell. Then it’ll be my turn for such an adventure.