I used to think dictionaries were just a list of words. In school, I rarely referred to a physical dictionary. Online dictionaries were much easier to access. Reading The Great Passage, a work of fiction by Shion Miura, made me realise how much work goes into maintaining physical dictionaries and, to a greater extent, the responsibilities involved in writing definitions for a word.
The book starts with Kohei Araki, a man who has devoted most of his working life to writing dictionaries. Araki works for the Dictionary Editorial Department at Gembu Books, who are responsible for all dictionary work and other projects, such as encyclopedias. The department is not treated as well as other parts of the company; the building for the editorial department is in an annex separate from most of the company. Many people do not even know who works in the editorial department, even those who work in the sales department whose job it is to sell books for Gembu.
Araki sets out on a quest to find somebody who can work on finishing a dictionary he has been working on for years. Araki is nearing retirement and thus cannot complete the project on a full-time basis with Gembu. After some searching, Araki finds Mitsuya Majime (whose first name means serious), a man who works in sales and is seen by others as unusual. Majime is unusual. He buys a lot of used books. He does not take good care of his hair. In general, Majime is seen as someone who has little regard for his own appearance. But Araki sees something in Majime after watching Majime organise some materials in the sales department. Araki decides to extend Majime an offer to work at the Dictionary Editorial Department.
The rest of the book shows the long journey of preparing a dictionary, covering everything from the after-hours discussions about dictionaries all the way to how the characters find words to go into the dictionary. One character, Professor Matsumoto, actively listens to the television when he is out in a cafe and will note down any unusual words he has not heard. This is not unusual behaviour for someone who works at the Dictionary Editorial Department. Majime is incredibly devoted to his work, scrutinising every detail of a dictionary to a great extent. He often debates how best to phrase a single word.
Dictionaries are not just lists of words. Definitions have to be just the right length to ensure the dictionary is not too long. If the dictionary is too long, the product will be more expensive, limiting the potential audience. If a definition needs to be changed after the first proof is ready – and dictionaries usually go through at least five proofs in this book – then other definitions may need to be changed to ensure the book meets its target word count. Although I cannot say for certain every limitation in this book is what is faced by those who produce dictionaries, I now have a new appreciation for what goes into making a dictionary.
Majime works hard and this attribute helps him find a woman with whom to spend his time. This woman is equally devoted to her career as a chef and wanted to spend time with a man who was not going to pull her away from her job. We see quite a bit of Majime’s girlfriend in the book, who helps to create a sense of community. Indeed, I feel like I know all of the characters, from Araki to Nishioka, an employee of the department who was later transferred. I could sit in a cafe and talk with each of them, even though my knowledge of dictionaries is limited.
The people who work at the Dictionary Editorial Department point out how languages are always changing. Those who maintain dictionaries need to listen to what words are being used and which words are no longer relevant. Have new definitions appeared for a word? Many words have multiple definitions and the people who produce dictionaries need to know which ones to use. Although dictionaries are vastly available online, physical ones are still important. A physical dictionary is an item you can hold in your hands that details the state of a language at any given time. Dictionaries evolve, which is why Araki was involved in producing multiple dictionaries throughout his career, with The Great Passage being the last one.
The Great Passage is an excellent story featuring characters who build relationships over their work (even if everyone is not as interested in words to the same extent of Majime and Araki, who spent significant amounts of their time thinking about words). I learned more about what goes into dictionaries and in many cases I was figuratively on the edge of my seat hoping that the Dictionary Editorial Department could overcome the numerous challenges the department faces. In the end, The Great Passage was completed, but not without many roadblocks, challenges, and humour.