One of the benefits of owning a Kindle and having an Amazon Prime membership is that they give you a free book each month (from a selection of six). This month, I downloaded The Great Passage and was pleasantly surprised at its depth and sincerity. If you had told me that I’d enjoy reading a book about writing a dictionary, well I’d probably believe you. But this book is so much more than that.
The Great Passage has two primary themes: the complexity of language and being passionate about a project.
Language is all about trying to convey ones thoughts and feelings as accurately as possible. To do so, we must use the imperfect vehicle of words. Words have subtle nuances, differences in both connotation and denotation, that makes finding exactly the right word a challenge. When talking with a friend or writing a speech to be delivered before millions, we use our words to help others understand what we are thinking. Even now, as I write this review, I am cherrypicking my words to help you understand what I think about this book. Dictionaries, therefore, help us by allowing us to find words that can effectively share our message with as little misunderstanding as possible. But this is a constant battle between the gradual changes of language and the desire to keep things static. Any language is a complex and dynamical system. Over time, languages change and evolve as people use words in novel ways. And that is why we must constantly be on our guard for new words, and new ways of using words.
The second theme Miura explores is how it feels to be truly passionate about something. In this story, the members of the team are all devoted to seeing the creation of their dictionary through to the very end. And that kind of enthusiasm can be infectious when shared correctly. Even for doing something like reading through definitions of thousands of words, if you love the work, it will be truly enjoyable. And it’s more than just enjoying the work itself. If the people around you are enthusiastic and help teach you their joy, you can partake of it too.
Ultimately, I greatly enjoyed reading this book. Japanese is a nuanced language, with a great amount of wordplay. The translator did an excellent job of explaining the meanings of things without interrupting the narrative flow. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in communication, be it written or spoken.
Some of my favorite quotes from the book:
“Gathering a huge number of words together with as much accuracy as possible was like finding a mirror without distortion. The less distortion in the word-mirror, the greater chance that when you opened up to someone and revealed your inner self, your feelings and thoughts would be reflected there with clarity and depth. You could look together in the mirror and laugh, weep, get angry.”
“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.”
“He says that memories are words. A fragrance or a flavor or a sound can summon up an old memory, but what’s really happening is that a memory that had been slumbering and nebulous becomes accessible in words.”