REVIEW: “The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon

  • Posted on: 28 September 2014
  • By: TedG

It is the fear of every reader and writer: a world so consumed by technology and the “next best thing,” that simple and ancient practices such as writing or engaging in intelligent conversation fade into obsolescence. Even worse, the written word, the feel and smell of paper, the weight of a book are increasingly lost to electronic substitutes that make reading “easier.” Ease and convenience trump all other considerations. What could happen if the convenience of using electronic devices actually trumped the use of language?

Ana Johnson is a lexicographer, which is a disappearing profession in the not-too-distant future where hand-held electronic devices, or “Memes,” are so common-place, so utterly relied upon by their users that books, newspapers, magazines, and even dictionaries have become relics. Memes by themselves are capable of sensing a user’s needs and taking action––Thinking about calling a cab? The Meme has the number on the screen; “would you like to dial now?” Your stomach growls; your Meme has nearby lunch options loaded and ready for you to place an order. Users can even have a microchip implanted that physically unites person and Meme. Now users are never offline; texts are sent, calls are placed, and the internet is accessed by mere thoughts. Actually using words is nearly archaic.

The changing world I’d come of age in––slowly bereft of books and love letters, photographs and maps, takeout menus, timetables, liner notes, and diaries––was a world I’d come to accept. If I was missing out on things, they were things I didn’t think to miss. How could we miss words? We were drowning in a sea of text. A new one arrived, chiming, every minute.

Actually, Ana is a lexicographer’s assistant. Her father, Douglas Johnson, is one of the foremost lexicographers in the world, and Ana works for him at the only dictionary still in existence in the U.S.: the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). As with other forms of the written word, the NADEL is struggling. Synchronic, a massive corporation that makes Memes, is buying up the rights to words and placing them on a mobile app called the Word Exchange. When a person hears a word they don’t recognize, they can use their Meme to look it up on the Word Exchange, and for a mere two cents, download the word and learn its definition. Language is becoming privatized and made into a commodity. Doug sees this change happening, but Ana and most other Meme-users shrug it off as conspiracy theory, the dire but unfounded predictions of people who just don’t like technology. Then, on the eve of releasing the NADEL’s third edition, Doug disappears, and Ana begins to reconsider all the strange and seemingly far-fetched warnings Doug had made. Soon, a word flu begins to spread through Memes to their users. People who rely on their Memes to provide them with words begin to speak in gibberish until they are unable to communicate at all. The word flu spreads quickly, and everyone connected to an electronic device is at risk.

The book alternates between Ana’s perspective and that of Bart, Ana’s co-worker and secret admirer. Bart’s narration happens through entries in his journal, so that when he contracts the word flu we are witnesses to his decline. Through Ana, we meet Phineas Thwaite, a friend of Doug’s who claims to know where Doug is and that’s he is safe, but there is something about him that puts Ana on edge. We also meet Max, Ana’s ex-boyfriend, whose company, Hermes, is joining with Synchronic to create and market new words using Hermes’s “Meaning Master.” While Bart tries to help Ana, he is also being pulled into Max’s fateful plan.

Despite being an intelligent topic and a bit of a thriller, the book is not as fast-paced as one might expect it to be. This is Graedon’s first novel, so maybe a bit of plodding is to be expected––or maybe the slow pace is intentional, a built-in slow boil rather than a technological rapid fire? But questions do come up that are never fully answered. How do Memes sense a user’s thoughts without the microchip? When Ana discovers the mysterious Creatorium in the basement of the NADEL building, we encounter a Faustian scene of book-burning and mute automatons uploading nonsensical words and definitions to the Word Exchange. The scene certainly fulfills the mental images one may have of how a society falls, and it does move the story along, heightening the phantom menace, but it is also dream-like, and by the end of the book, it seems disconnected and a bit contrived. Nevertheless, the characters are well-developed and there is no escaping the story’s prescience.

You don’t believe such a book could be prescient? If you think all of this is just good fiction and that our society is too smart for any of this to happen, take a look at the September 22nd issue of Time magazine and the article “iNeed?” by Lev Grossman and Matt Vella. Related to the release of the Apple Watch, the article explores where this new product has brought us in our technological evolution, and it ponders what might be next. The article does not mention Graedon’s book, but it ends with this disconcerting parallel to the world she describes:

…the Apple Watch represents a redrawing of the map that locates technology in one place and our bodies in another. …Once you’re O.K. with wearing technology, the only way forward is inward: the next product launch after the Apple Watch would logically be the iMplant. If Apple succeeds in legitimizing wearables as a category, it will have established the founding node in a network that could spread throughout our bodies… Then we’ll really have to decide how much control we want––and what we’re prepared to give up for it.

Reading The Word Exchange will give you a glimpse into what we might give up for that sort of “control.”