The Word Exchange – Alena Graedon


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.

Published: Jan 2014

Why I Chose It: This book was suggested to me and I was totally intrigued by the lack of print in existence, and the idea of a “word flu.” I’m curious about books that interact with the words it’s written with, playing on words and playing with the language even as it’s telling a story, and this one seemed like it would deliver. I couldn’t wait to check it out, and put myself on the library’s wait list right away!

The Review:

I was initially curious about this novel because I enjoy stories built around playing with words and language as it’s telling a story – and The Word Exchange definitely lived up to that. Anana works for a dictionary, and right from the beginning of the novel everyone is aware that this will be the last ever printing of the dictionary. It’s a sort of the end of an era. All dictionaries are now online, and no one has the need for a print edition. After Anana’s father disappears, she goes on an adventure that brings her into contact with other dying (or seemingly extinct) arts.

I really enjoyed reading this book because it had so much unique stuff in it. First of all, the language it uses is amazing. As they all work at a dictionary, naturally many of the characters not only have knowledge of obsolete or rare words, but they thoroughly enjoy using these words in their everyday conversations. The narrative also provided small doses of the history of a certain word, or how the word was used in a certain context, which was really interesting.

Besides the interesting use of language, the book also had a lovely representation of many historical artifacts, such as pneumatic tubes that characters used to contact each other. I have a certain delight for pneumatic tubes, so I was really happy.  There was also things like secret meetings in old libraries – libraries joined by private membership only, because sadly all public libraries are closed – and even visits to archiving rooms. As Anana visited each location I was really happy with the descriptions of the settings and the general feeling I was getting from the story.

The storyline itself I found really interesting. Anana exists in this high-tech, fast paced world, but has an amazing appreciation of the older, more methodical way of life. As she searches for her father, these two worlds continuously collide and create friction for Anana, and I was definitely caught up in the story.

Unfortunately, though, the story at times was a bit slow to get through. There are some sections of theories about language and language development, some of the histories were a bit dense, and these I found a bit hard to follow.  But at the same time, I don’t think the book would have been as good without these parts. It needed these parts. Because this is a first person account, and the characters are recording their own stories, it’s only reasonable that they go off on tangents and give a small discussion about certain words or terms, or the development of the language. I think I just found them a bit harder to get through because there’s just so much stuff in them to process, and I would have to slow down my reading to be able to absorb it all. This is not a book that you can whip through in a couple of hours!

Finally, I was totally fascinated by this book because I can genuinely see it happening in real life. Many people are switching to digital instead of print, and this includes all reference materials like dictionaries and thesauruses. I am one of those people. We look up so much on our phones or tablets (“Memes” in the book) that it’s really easy to see the world that Graedon is describing. And of course, the Word Flu. This is also  something that is totally happening now, and I’ll give an example. I find myself using words that are not real words. For example, (and forgive me…) I have recently caught myself using the words “Totes Magoates” and “cray cray” in actual sentences. At first I used these in jest, mocking the people that use these as legitimate ways to communicate. And yet, somehow they have crept into my own language, and when I found myself using them, I was shocked. How did I let this happen? This is exactly what the Word Flu is. It replaces real words with made-up words, eventually rendering one unable to understand their own language.  In The Word Exchange, as the characters are exposed to the Word Flu these strange words slowly start to creep into the narrative, and I really experienced what it was like to lose the ability to understand your own language – and to understand Anana’s fear. It was so well done.

I loved this book because it is amazing to read. There are so many details put into the book, about words and definitions, the evolution of our own language, and the historical atmosphere it creates. Yet it’s a totally believable, thriving world that Anana has to survive, and has a story that pulls you in. While I can’t give full stars because of some of the heavy theory discussion and histories, this is a book I totally want to read again, to explore all the dusty corners for the details I know I missed. This was just a really interesting book, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who loves words!

Rating: 4 / 5



“Our natural tendency is to be distracted – to scan the horizon constantly for predators and prospects. Books made us turn that attention inward, to build higher and higher castles within the quiet kingdoms of our minds.” p 289

“Why do you think people stopped reading? We read to connect with other minds. But why read when you’re busy writing, describing the fine-grained flotsam of your own life. Compulsively recording every morsel you eat, that you’re cold, or, I don’t know, heartbroken by a football game. An endless stream flowing to an audience of everyone and no one. Who can bother with the past when it’s hard enough keeping up with the present?” p 345


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