The Word Exchangeby Alena Graedon Published 08 Apr 2014
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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.
"The Word Exchange" Reviews
When her father disappears just days before his life's work, the third edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, is set to debut, she has no idea of the rabbit hole she'll soon be going down. People are forgetting common words and coming down with what is called the word flu. Is there a connection between the word flu and her missing father?
I got this from Netgalley. My initial impression was that the book was overwritten by someone who was into literary fiction and "slumming it" by writing a sf book and a little too in love with its own cleverness. Did my impression change? Read on...
The Word Exchange is set in a very near future where everyone uses electronic devices called Memes for lots of everyday tasks, like the way people use Smartphones now, only kicked up a few notches. Meme use is so prevalent that people commonly pay a few cents to look up words online. That's fine, until everyone starts speaking gibberish.
First off, I found the worldbuilding a little lazy. Douglas Johnson's age and birthdate didn't gibe with the book's post 2016 time frame. Also, I found it a little too convenient that the only technological advancement was in the Memes. However, I was able to brush that aside. What really irked me early on was that the story was told by two POV characters in the form of journal entries. In and of itself, that's fine. The problem was that both narrators were ramblers so it took forever for anything to actually happen. And the footnotes! Footnotes should only be used in sf/fantasy if your last name starts with a "P" and ends with "ratchett."
Around the 40% mark, I stopped being such a curmudgeon and focused on the story, which had finally begun making some forward progress. The intrusion of nonsense words into Anana and Bart's journal entries was fairly well done and the word flu actually wound up being pretty good, though I liked the way Neal Stephenson did the language virus concept in Snow Crash better.
As people lose their ability to communicate and later access the Internet, society quickly slides downhill, illustrating how dependent everyone has become on electronic devices.
So here we are at the end and I'm not really sure how I felt about this book. I thought parts of it were good but I wouldn't precisely say I liked it. It felt about 100 pages too long. It was a mystery/conspiracy novel that featured sf concepts I thought were done better in other books. I'm giving it a 3 but I'm not really thrilled about it.
As much as I enjoyed last year's Dave Eggers' cautionary tale The Circle, about a Google-like company smothering all of our personal freedoms, I couldn't help but think that Eggers could've went a little further in the future and turned it into a truly dystopian masterpiece instead of the gonzo-journalism-disguised-as-a-novel it turned out being.
Enter The Circle's evil, precocious younger sister, Alena Graedon's rather stunning debut The Word Exchange, a novel that isn't afraid to make that leap down the rabbit hole. Ms. Graedon's painstakingly-written effort imagines a world where words and language as we know them are effectively commoditized and ultimately destroyed, thanks to the efforts of an Apple- (Google-?) -like entity whose "Memes" (insanely smart smartphones that interact with an implanted chip in the brain) sweep the world up in their popularity, "the Word Exchange" (owned by the same company), a highly-successful pay-per-use dictionary that basically renders what few "analog" dictionaries that still exist obsolete, and a "word flu" that is spread by use of said "memes", rendering its users aphasic (losing the ability to speak coherently.)
Many of my fellow Goodreaders have been turned off by the novel's verbosity. Word-nerd that I am, I totally loved it. Contextually, it worked. (The narrators, Anana and Bart, are editors of one of the last extant dictionaries in existence; how else would you expect them to speak?). Few dystopian novels are perfect (The Handmaid's Tale being one of the few exceptions), but this totally worked for me. Creepy and thought-provoking. (Bonus creep-out points if you read this with an E-reader!)
(Fun synchronicity fact for Karen Russell fans: I was delighted to see that Ms. Graedon cited in the Acknowledgments section the support of Ms. Russell as one of her long-time friends and pre-readers of this book. Observant fans of Ms. Russell's Swamplandia! will note that both books feature palindromic principal protagonists (Ava and Anana) and both liberally pay tribute to Alice (of Wonderland fame.) Perhaps no coincidence at all that I loved both these two totally dissimilar (yet kinda joined at the hip) novels.)
A million stars. So much to say about this book.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Originally posted here: The Steadfast Reader - Fabulous Friday: The Word Exchange
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. 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!
Worthy But Flawed First Novel by a Young Writer
I liked this more than I thought I would.
At first I thought it was too, too trendy and clever. But, gradually, the story drew me in and I ended up enjoying the book.
The main character is Anana (variously nicknamed "Ana" and "Alice"). She is a young woman who lives in NY City in the near future and works for her father, Douglas Samuel Johnson, at the NADEL ("North American Dictionary of the English Language"). Everyone at NADEL (including Ana) calls him Doug. He's an affable, overweight guy who loves pineapple print ties and is a bit of a Luddite.
Doug is divorced from Ana's mom, glamorous ex-model Vera Doran. Vera's new boyfriend is Laird, a prominent TV anchor.
One day Doug goes missing. No one has any idea where he is.
Ana narrates much of the book; although narration switches between her and Bart, her colleague at NADEL and her father's right hand man.
Ana's live in boyfriend, Max, broke up with her and moved out of her tiny apartment about a month ago.
He's purchased a palatial place in Brooklyn. His IT gaming startup, Hermes, (Max's real name) has been acquired by huge global computer company Synchronic. They want the rights to Hermes' game called Meaning Master.
At around this time, a pandemic of a deadly "word flu" devastates NY City, and spreads globally. Its symptoms are aphasia and a deterioration of language skills.
I don't want to say more about the story to avoid spoilers.
I can say from personal experience that Graedon's point about computers destroying language and communication skills and our ability to connect with other people is neither futuristic nor a joke. I've worked in corporate IT for years and I can attest to the near illiteracy of many supposedly educated colleagues, as well as the lack of warmth and human connection among technology workers. Which came first--their personalities and poor language skills or their computer work? Hard to say, but still, there does seem to be a connection.
However, one problem with the book is that these kinds of points are made in a way that is heavy handed and often bombastic. That sort of pomposity happens often.
Another (more minor) problem is that sometimes the characters themselves strain credulity (especially Ana). How can a woman who freely quotes Hegel not know that C.L. Dodgson is Lewis Carroll?
I actually found Bart to be a far more compelling character than Ana. Everyone in the book seems to love Ana (well, not everyone, just the main characters) and I'm not entirely certain why. Except I've certainly learned that love is completely irrational, and people rarely love those who deserve it, and frequently love those who don't.
For me, the worst problem was a basic flaw in the science. [spoilers removed] However, it is true that anything is possible, and one of the jobs of science fiction is to predict things that currently don't seem believable. Besides, I was willing to suspend my disbelief about the science and just go with the story, and it was a good story.
Tavia Gilbert and Paul Michael Garcia did a pretty good job of reading the audio, although they did occasionally make distracting mistakes in pronunciation (as when they both read the made up "Creatorium" as "Crematorium").
I read the Kindle version of this along with the audiobook, which was a good thing, since the NY Public library's version of the audio chopped off the ending sentence of nearly every chapter. Besides, this is the kind of book for which is sometimes useful to see the words as well as hear them, so this experiment in mixed media was helpful to me.
I do think this is worth reading despite its faults and we can expect more good books from this writer.
On Twitter I described this book as a mashup between a David Mamet movie and the Dictionary. It's not a perfect description, but it gives you a glimpse of the weirdly wonderful world of THE WORD EXCHANGE.
First off, I have to applaud Graedon for inventing one of those near-future scenarios that actually feels real and terrifyingly possible. The evolution of smartphones to the "memes" of her book seems like something that could really happen (and it honestly wouldn't surprise me if it did).
Then there is the twisty-turny nature of the plot, where Anana searches for her father, the editor of the last bastian of the printed word, the dictionary. His sudden disappearance coupled with the strange symptoms that start going around signals some kind of foul play she wants desperately to understand. This is not a book you can just figure out, one where you can see the turns coming. For me, that's a big plus. I like to be surprised, I like a world to be ever-expanding.
Ultimately, this is a book for people who love books and words and believe in the power of writing. That is the big beating heart of this book, even as it whips you around turns and throws in a great romance subplot.
It's pretty amazing, it's a real ride, and I highly recommend it. A solid 4.5 stars for me, short of five only because it ended rather quickly.
The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon is a book that I have very mixed feelings about.
Let us start by imagining a world where our cell phones anticipate what we need before we need it. We begin to wonder what our grandparent’s birthday is and it springs to life with the information we need. All it required was a thought. That word on the tip of our tongue appears on the screen just before we need it so you can complete your thought without missing a beat. If you can imagine that, then you can imagine the power and obvious desirability of the technology in this book.
The Word Exchange is an online marketplace where words are bought and sold. Did you forget the definition of a word? Have the definition instantly available for mere change. A quick micro-transaction and viola, the word you intended. But we get pretty familiar with the words we use, don’t we? What if we became so dependent on technology that our brains no longer stored memories as efficiently since we have these nifty devices reading our thoughts and providing the data we seek?
The Word Exchange pulls a very clever trick here. The characters in our book write definitions for the NADEL, a dictionary. Their vocabulary is spectacular. I had to use the ‘word lookup’ feature of my Kindle Paperwhite frequently, especially during the first quarter of the book. It provided an incredibly unsettling feeling that maybe this dependence on technology is already happening to us. Maybe we are already forgetting these words that were once a part of our language.
This trick, in my opinion, was only clever because I was able to very quickly grab a definition. If I was reading a paper copy, I don’t think I would have spent the time looking up words. Although perhaps it would have been sufficient to drive a different point home. That point being that if we’re not using this language, we lose it. If it isn’t saved somewhere, it could be gone forever.
On this premise the book succeeds.
Then comes the Word Flu. The Word Flu is an illness that strikes and presents much the way the flu does that we’re familiar with. High fever, nausea, vomiting, etc. However, the Word Flu also presents in such a way that words in your vocabulary are replaced with others. Often times nonsense.
Since a condition of my early readers copy is that I not share any text, I will prepare my own example.
“Why is everyone oxbowing at me,” she wondered. “I did remember to kaneek my pants, right?”
And this example also serves to make one of the points of The Word Exchange. Words are powerful. They are functional. Is everyone looking at her? Is everyone shoving her? Did she remember to wear her pants? Or zip her pants? Words disappearing is problematic for society.
It’s also problematic for the reader. At least for this reader. I read to disappear into a story. I was never able to comfortably settle into The Word Exchange. These breaks would snap me back to reality while I considered what was actually trying to be said.
This is one of those instances where I think the author was making a point but that it also worked against them. The mechanic is beautiful and works. Unfortunately it works to a fault. I found myself hating to read this book.
The books pacing seemed glacial until about the halfway point. From there it seemed to accelerate to a snail’s pace. I think the author or editor must have known that because they occasionally dropped hints that certain parts of the story would pay off later. An example might be something like, “And I’d learn soon that it wasn’t so cut and dry.” They had to keep dangling a carrot. I considered walking away repeatedly and only the obligation to the review kept me hanging around. But I was miserable finishing.
The characters were good enough, I guess. Our character lead Anana was likable enough but also capable enough that I never really feared for her all that much. I guess that makes sense though since much of the danger was presented toward people she cared about, and not necessarily directed at her. Also, despite her being in near constant motion it seems like she’s more a victim of circumstance rather than actually moving the story forward. Honestly it feels like most of the book is just happening to her, she’s not manipulating her circumstances at all.
As for the other characters, Anana seems to care about them but I never saw enough to share in her feelings. I really found myself even struggling to care about anyone beyond her. Even when they set the stage for a romance, I couldn’t care less.
So I guess that’s probably enough. The things that work in the book work tremendously. I get the idea that in the future the Word Flu could really disrupt us due to our growing dependence on technology. I get the idea that words are powerful and losing even some of them could be disastrous. The story itself though, the meat and potatoes of The Word Exchange were just meh.
This one was a hard one for me, folks. And it kills me to dislike a book that executes its premise so well. But here we are.
Good alnox, my friends. Gritbaugh.