A fiendishly clever dystopian novel for the digital age, The Word Exchange is a fresh, stylized, and decidedly original debut about the dangers of technology and the power of the printed word.
In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a near reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are essentially things of the past, as we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but 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.
It took me a while to get into this book. Just a few pages in, the sheer amount of obscure words was driving me crazy! Not realizing the irony at the time, I looked several words up directly from the dictionary in the Overdrive app on my phone. (Well played, Miss Graedon, well played.) The journal format also threw me off at first. After reading the narrator talk about things she did not yet know, I would think, “Then why are you telling this yet?” Once I got to the footnotes and realized it was supposed to be some sort of journal entry, this started to make more sense.
After a few chapters adjusting to the writing style, I began to really enjoy this story. Not only was it fast paced and engaging, but it also made me stop and think about our culture, our smartphones, the way that we use them, and the way they affect our interaction with others. The way I use my own smartphone, and feel a sense of frantic loss when I realize I have forgotten it. I began to notice how quick I am to look things up rather than try to remember. How I feel the urge to pull it out for entertainment even in the presence of friends and family. Graedon has pinpointed some of these habits and actions we take as a society, drawn conclusions on where they might lead, and painted a haunting picture of a plausible (if technologically or biologically possible, I have no idea) future.
Without giving too much away, I would also like to applaud Graedon’s masterful execution of aphasia and word flu. It was jarring enough to give you pause and yet coherent enough to understand the exact sentiment a character was trying to convey. The overall effect was quite well done.
If you love language, dystopian novels, or debating man’s use of technology, you should read this book.