the great passage review

Inspired as a boy by the multiple meanings to be found for a single word in the dictionary, Kohei Araki is devoted to the notion that a dictionary is a boat to carry us across the sea of words. But after thirty-seven years creating them at Gembu Books, it’s time for him to retire and find his replacement.

He discovers a kindred spirit in Mitsuya Majime—a young, disheveled square peg with a penchant for collecting antiquarian books and a background in linguistics—whom he swipes from his company’s sales department.

Led by his new mentor and joined by an energetic, if reluctant, new recruit and an elder linguistics scholar, Majime is tasked with a career-defining accomplishment: completing The Great Passage, a comprehensive 2,900-page tome of the Japanese language. On his journey, Majime discovers friendship, romance, and an incredible dedication to his work, inspired by the bond that connects us all: words.

I was kindly given a review copy by Netgalley. This has not affected my opinions.

It has been an AGE since I read a book about books. (For those of you who are newer to my blog – this is my ultimate reading pleasure. I love reading about the power of words, the smell of old books, the peculiar exhilaration that comes with finding a book that seems to be written for you…) I hoped that The Great Passage by Shion Miura (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter) would be just the thing to get me back into that particular genre.

And oh goodness, it was. Nearly every character in The Great Passage has that obsessive love for books that I adore. This was made especially interesting because of the centrality of dictionaries to the novel. Now, I’m not going to say that I’ve always been fascinated by dictionaries, but The Great Passage really made them come to life in ways that I’d never thought of before. For example, multiple characters question the dictionary definition of ‘love’, particularly in the difference between romantic and non-romantic love. There’s also quite a lot of talk about how dictionaries can be used for social change – ‘love’ does not have to be defined as being ‘between a man and a woman’, for example. Because of this, I really understood why so many of the characters found dictionaries to be their life calling. (It also really made me wish I understood more about how Japanese works as a language!)

However, I did think that the blurb was quite misleading – it implies that Majime is pretty much the main character of the book. Instead, his story is just one section of the novel. We follow at least two other narrators throughout the course of the book. While I liked the other sections, I did kind-of wish that Miura had stuck to Majime’s point-of-view. Because of the multiple points of view, the book felt a little bit disjointed. However, I am not usually a fan of multiple narrators, so that might just be me being a nit-pick.

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed diving into the world of The Great Passage. I can only hope that when I go into publishing, I can do Majime and the other book obsessives proud.

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5 thoughts on “the great passage review

  1. Huntress of Diverse Books says:

    This sounds beautiful. I’m always intrigued in the opportunity of using dictionaries to describe the development of a language. However, in Germany, it always takes ages for new definitions or words to be entered into the dictionary.

    I once had a replica book of the first Duden in my hand at work. The Duden is one of the most famous German dictionaries. And it was fascinating to flip through, see the old typed writing font and see words that I had never heard of before. Interestingly, the first Duden didn’t include defintions, it was just a list of words with the “correct” spelling. “Correct” as in the spelling most people adheered to.

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  2. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    Wonderful review, Wendy! I haven’t read a book about books in a long time, actually… I also adore reading those sorts of novels! I find that fiction focusing on books really captures me, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to place why. I’ll have to strongly consider this for future reading.Regardless, The Great Passage is now on my TBR! I’m definitely fascinated by a dictionary-focused story.

    This book was originally written in Japanese. Do you think that you missed anything due to the translation? I know that kanji is complex; how one symbol is presented and where it is presented can completely change the meaning. Is any of that addressed in this novel?

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    • whatthelog says:

      Thank you 🙂 A lot of my favourite novels are books about books. They’re just enchanting.

      It didn’t feel translated, if that makes sense, but yeah, there were references to how the language works differently to English. At times different characters have in-depth discussions about the different implications of different words, and how they can be used. The linguistics nerd in me was very very happy 😀 I think I missed things more because I’m not familiar with Japanese, rather than because of the translation.

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