The Great Passage by Shion Miura is a novel about a group of editors compiling a dictionary. If you’re looking for a fast-moving plot with plenty of action, this is not the book for you. But if you love language and are willing to be patient, it holds plenty of rewards.
When I say this is a novel about compiling a dictionary, I don’t mean that the dictionary compiling is a loose frame for a more exciting story. I mean that it really is about the details of the dictionary, which is called The Great Passage. It’s about the index cards, the tough decisions over what to include, the hiring of staff, the selection of appropriate paper stock, the checking of five sets of galleys, and the negotiations within the publishing company to push the dictionary to publication over many long years.
It sounds dull, but it isn’t. I think that’s because at its heart The Great Passage is a book about obsession. Many of the tasks we set ourselves in life are somewhat arbitrary, but there’s something compelling about seeing someone completely dedicated to something and pursuing it to the exclusion of all else. You end up rooting for this small band of obsessives, suffering with them when they discover a missing word close to publication and have to double-check the whole thing, and rejoicing with them as they complete a new entry or craft a particularly apposite definition.
It helps that the obsession is with books and language. If you’re a keen reader and/or writer, the characters will seem like kindred spirits. I identified with the shy, awkward Majime, who never seemed to say the right thing in person and sought refuge in the pages of books:
“No matter how poor he was at communicating with people, with books he could engage in deep, quiet dialogue.”
I loved, too, the way that working on the dictionary changed the characters. A couple of the staff members were not very interested in language to begin with, but immersing themselves in this world helped them to pay attention to the precise meaning and usage of words, which helped them learn how to live. Here’s one of them:
“Working on the dictionary, delving into words the way we do, has changed me, she thought. Awakening to the power of words—the power not to hurt others but to protect them, to tell them things, to form connections with them—had taught her to probe her own mind and inclined her to make allowances for other people’s thoughts and feelings.”
Another is a brash character who learns to show some vulnerability, while even the shy Majime learns to connect with other people more effectively. It’s this slow process of character development, intertwined with and influenced by the dictionary they’re creating, that makes the novel so satisfying.
And running through it all is a wonderful extended metaphor about life as a sea on the surface of which words gather as little points of light. The “Great Passage” that gives the dictionary and hence the novel its title refers to the journey of a ship across the sea of words, helping people to pick up and gather these small points of light, with which they can tell each other what they’re thinking and feeling more accurately and so form closer connections.
I discovered The Great Passage through a review on The Reading Life, and I’m very glad I did. It was a pleasure to read and gave me plenty of food for thought.
This post is my contribution to the Japanese Literature Challenge organised by Dolce Bellezza. It runs from January to March, so there’s still plenty of time to join in by reading either this book or any other work of Japanese Literature. Let me know if you’re participating, and I’ll go and read your contribution!