Book Review: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

The Word Exchange: What it is about

From the publishers: “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: What I thought

This book reminded me of Lexicon by Max Barry, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. It amazed me that two novels are published this year in which words and dictionaries play a powerful role in a near future. Coincidence? Do you know of other books like this that were recently published?

I enjoyed this book in about the same way as Lexicon: well-written, often very interesting, but also a bit long-winded and unlikely. Physically, the hard-back copy is a beauty. Quite heavy (but still bed-reading-worthy). Nice cover, nice paper.

The story was fun: using their Memes (mobiles) people can think of new meanings of (new) words. A virus called “word flu” spreads around and people around Anana become affected. Especially fun was how Bart, who narrates part of the story, becomes less and less comprehensible as he gets more sick from the virus. Lucky for the reader, most of his story can be understood even with words replaced by nonsense words. Still, it was a fun idea.

Anana goes here and there and is being followed and threatened, as she tries to find out where her father has disappeared to. That went on a bit too long for me. I did enjoy reading about Bart who was in love with Anana, while she found him annoying, to start with at least. Anana’s father telling his story with a lot of background was a bit boring. The scene in which Anana visits a basement where dictionaries are being destroyed was amazing.

So, a bit of the good and a bit of the bad. Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot!

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (good)

Number of pages: 370

First published: 2014

I got this: from Doubleday Publishers via my Dutch Random House rep

Genre: science fiction, speculative fiction


About Judith
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10 Responses to Book Review: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

  1. bibliosue says:

    I think I may enjoy this more than I did Lexicon, it sounds like it has a better story to me.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Suzanne, I’m not sure the story is better. Some of the elements are more interesting, but The Lexicon was interesting too. You may enjoy this more than The Lexicon, but maybe not enough to bother.

  2. Isi says:

    Great you liked it!
    I have it on my list becuse all the reviews I’ve read are very positive, and even though I don’t usually pick up books set in the “future”, I feel curious about this one.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Isi, I don’t know whether I should recommend it to you, especially if you’re not into ‘future’ novels. Get it from the library if you can, don’t buy it! 🙂

      • Isi says:

        Let’s think what you said was a joke….
        A book. Recently released. In English. In my library…. 😉
        Anyway, I’ll think about it, for the moment I have enough books to read, haha.

  3. I felt the same – a bit of good a bit of bad!

  4. Leslie says:

    I liked the story but not the writing style. Part of the problem was I listened to the audio and my mind kept wandering off during boring or long-winded parts of the story. I ended up switching to an eGalley for part of it but the footnotes were annoying. Perhaps good old fashioned print is the way to go with this one.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Leslie, I can imagine that listening to this story is not the best way. I also hate it when I can’t easily access the footnotes in an ebook. In this case, I don’t think you missed much – the book didn’t really need those footnotes, I think.

  5. I think I would like this… Maybe I’ll give it a try.
    Thanks Judith!

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