The Great Passage

This disarming workplace novel (222 pages) was published in June of 2017 by Amazon Crossing. The book takes you to Japan. Melissa read The Great Passage and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.

The Great Passage

Shion Miura, Juliet Winters Carpenter (translator)

This is a sweet and gently told story set in Japan that speaks lovingly of the power of words and the emotions contained in the particular arrangement of a few letters.

Not much happens — a group of people toils for more than a decade on a new 2900-page (!) dictionary called The Great Passage — but everything happens: people fall in love, live and die, question themselves, make friends, break up, succeed, and fail.

Our hero is Mitsuya Majime, a young book collector with a background in linguistics and a personality wholly unlike his mentor Kohei. Majime devotes himself to parsing the true meaning of words for the epic dictionary, including left, right, man, woman, and the most important of all — love.

Just when it seems like it might get too precious — almost everyone is quite earnest and well-intentioned — there’s a touch of sarcastic humor that transforms the characters on the page into real, contradictory, gloriously messy humans.

The action gets sparky when Kaguya, the daughter of Majime’s landlord, shows up. She’s a chef, and the scenes at her restaurant are packed with food descriptions that add a richness to the story without drawing undue attention to themselves. She’s also the recipient of one of the most awkward love letters ever written in any language.

The characters lovingly examine words, turning them over in their hands like faceted gemstones and discussing their definitions to get to the root of meaning. Who knew the minutiae of the development of a dictionary could be so compelling? The specifics and affection for shades of meaning in this text will entice you to fall in love with the poetry of the Japanese language — give you a renewed appreciation for the words you speak every day.

Shout out to the lyrical, sparkling translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter.

‘A dictionary is a ship that crosses the sea of words,’ said Araki, with a sense that he was laying bare his innermost soul. ‘People travel on it and gather the small points of light floating on the dark surface of the waves. They do this in order to tell someone their thoughts accurately, using the best possible words. Without dictionaries, all any of us could do is linger before the vastness of the deep.’ — Shion Miura

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