Samuel Johnson defined lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words” (Dictionary of the English Language). Shion Miura’s The Great Passage (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter) is full of such harmless drudges. This short novel rotates among a cast of characters united in creating a great Japanese dictionary and their fondness for the oddball editor.
When the novel begins, The Great Passage (the name chosen for the dictionary) is just a glimmer in the eyes of its creators. Araki is about to retire from Gembu Books, but he finds the perfect replacement in Majime. Majime has the same obsession with words and teasing out all of their meanings. Unless you’re a word nerd, too, spending time with them can be a little aggravating because Majime, Araki, and the other lexicographers can’t let questions go until they’ve got all the answers. Other characters (who take turns being the focus of different chapters) who aren’t harmless drudges are bewildered by them.
The dictionary takes years to put together because, aside from the amount of work it takes to select words, research and define them, and proofread everything, the publisher keeps side-tracking them to work on other projects. The dictionary department has a reputation for being a money pit and, for most of the book, Majime et al. fret that Gembu will pull the plug on the project. In the end, it takes more than ten years to finish the dictionary.
Being a word nerd myself, I enjoyed Majime, Araki, and the other’s conversations about word origins and meanings. Other readers might not be so enamored of all the etymology. Majime is a sweet character to follow because of his oddness and the fact that he succeeds in spite of himself sometimes. This book was the perfect literary lightness I needed after the atomic weight of Radium Girls.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 1 June 2017.