The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on April 8th 2014
Genres: Dystopian, Fiction, Literary, Technological, Thrillers
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
A dystopian novel for the digital age, The Word Exchange offers an inventive, suspenseful, and decidedly original vision of the dangers of technology and of the enduring power of the printed word. In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are things of the past, and we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but also have become so intuitive that they hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order takeout at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called the Word Exchange.
Anana Johnson works with her father, Doug, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), where Doug is hard at work on the last edition that will ever be printed. Doug is a staunchly anti-Meme, anti-tech intellectual who fondly remembers the days when people used email (everything now is text or videoconference) to communicate—or even actually spoke to one another, for that matter. One evening, Doug disappears from the NADEL offices, leaving a single written clue: ALICE. It’s a code word he devised to signal if he ever fell into harm’s way. And thus begins Anana’s journey down the proverbial rabbit hole . . . Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague, Anana’s search for Doug will take her into dark basements and subterranean passageways; the stacks and reading rooms of the Mercantile Library; and secret meetings of the underground resistance, the Diachronic Society. As Anana penetrates the mystery of her father’s disappearance and a pandemic of decaying language called “word flu” spreads, The Word Exchange becomes a cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller and a meditation on the high cultural costs of digital technology.
Guys, GUYS! If you read one new frontlist book this spring let this be it.
Graedon does magical things with words. This book is both beautiful and terrifying all at once. I can hardly believe that this is a debut novel. For a very serious bibliophile and someone with a casual interest in linguistics I found this book to be nearly flawless. The writing is lyrical and the vocabulary used throughout was challenging. (Yes, I realize there was irony in me looking up unfamiliar words on my Kindle version of the OED … though I feel like I navigated the word flu pretty well.)
“The end of words would mean the end of memory and thought. In other words, our past and future.”
The premise is brilliant, but more importantly it’s wonderfully executed. Graedon’s world building is believable and complete. She unfolds the story with expert pacing the reader is held at arms length for just long enough to get acclimated into a world where technology can predict what you want almost before you know you want it. It’s easy to envision Doug as your crazy tin-hat wearing neighbor who won’t get on ‘The Google’ because they’re afraid of technology. (Except Doug is right. It leads you to reconsider the neighbor.) My one minor complaint is that I couldn’t completely buy into the physical transmission of the word flu.
For lovers of print books, journals, and all things analogue, this book is for you. You will feel vindicated. For people think that our technology is outpacing our morality and corporations are exploiting this, this book is for you. For those that feel our privacy has been sacrificed at the altar of convenience and that the world is a bit too connected these days, this book is for you.
When I got my first iPod I hated having to click through songs that I wasn’t in the mood for, in my youth I used to dream about the days that technology would just know what I wanted. The Word Exchange turns that dream into a very frightening reality.
“It was only when I finally gave it up for good that I realized just how much I’d ceded to the Meme: of course people’s names and Life information (numbers, embarrassing stories, social connections) but also instructions for virtually everything […] Getting rid of it was like cutting off a hand or breaking up with myself. Only later did I feel truly horrified that for years I’d invited something to eavesdrop on me. And not just my gainful breathing apparatus but the careful, quiet thicket of my thoughts.”
God. Does that sound like social media or what?
This book epitomizes why I hate (and the imminent danger of) expressions like “totes adorbs”. Seriously folks, are the extra syllables really that taxing on you? Western society is increasingly lazy, allowing machines to think for us, and if we fail to inoculate ourselves against the rising tide of internet acronyms, ‘easy speech’, and emoticons – something close to the world laid out in The Word Exchange will inevitably fall upon us. (Super guilty here on excessive smiley faces in casual text and online conversation.)
“How could we miss words? We were drowning in a sea of text. A new one arrived, chiming, every minute.”
Now it’s no secret that I do like my tech gadgets – especially when it comes to reading (most days I’d rather read an eBook than a real one…) but I do still read books.
True story: My ability to spell has declined embarrassingly since I bought a MacBook that underlines every spelling mistake that I make – I just right click that misspelled word and have the computer correct it for me… if I’ve come close enough for the computer to even recognize it. While I don’t have aphasia yet … let’s not even go there, it’s too scary.
I want this on all the Best of 2014 lists. This might be the best book I’ve read in years. This is the kind of book that I want to hand out on street corners. Go try it. Don’t be afraid of footnotes, they’re really not that copious. Don’t be afraid of the vocabulary – that’s part of the point. Just read it, then come back and tell me what you think.
Have you read The Word Exchange? I’m interested in other thoughts, even if you don’t agree with me!
P.S. Dear Doubleday: My birthday is very close to your release date. A signed first edition would not hurt my feelings. 🙂