Book Review: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

The Word Exchange by Alena GraedonTitle: The Word Exchange
Author: Alena Graedon
Genre: Literary Fiction
Copyright: 2014
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 384
ISBN-13: 978-0385537650

I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

My apocalypse plan includes cycling with my family to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to set up camp with some college friends. My friend Caroline is tasked with pocketing the queen bee from her hives and pedaling the swarm to the meeting spot. (Bees make honey, honey makes mead ,and who doesn’t need alcohol during an apocalypse?)

We’ve got our drink of choice planned, but have only flippantly accounted for our survival without technology. Do we really need a robotic voice carping directions to the nearest Starbucks or an app to pay for the bitter beverage via our phones?  A few bees and we’re set, right?

Well, at least that’s what I thought until reading The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon.  Graedon’s debut novel exposed my naive assumption that the greatest threat to my comfy technologically dependent way of life would be an electro-magnetic pulse or, horrifyingly, an exploded A-bomb in our hemisphere.  In The Word Exchange, however, the greatest threat to Anana Johnson’s world is technology. And not the Terminator-type-robots-ruling-the-world technology, but technology that we use every day.

It’s the year 2031 and Anana works at one of the remaining dictionary companies, NADEL, with her dad who’s the top lexicographer for the dictionary.  Her dad prods her to read more and to use her Meme less. A Meme seems like an advanced smart phone. It remembers your preferences say for a latte with soymilk instead of coconut and can alert you to the mood of other people in a room by syncing with the Memes of those nearby. A person’s Meme manages bank accounts, identity, and all the annoying tasks we’d like to hand off to someone else, like ordering a cab or remembering what’s left in the fridge. It can also, for two pennies, serve up the meaning for a word you’ve forgotten.

And people are always forgetting words in 2031. Anana’s ex-boyfriend, Max, started a company that profited from people’s disintegrating vocabulary. The Word Exchange is software that offers up the words you can’t remember. Max’s company gets acquired by a global enterprise called Synchronic. Synchronic has purchased most of the remaining dictionary publishers and through Max approaches Anana’s dad with a proposal to buy NADEL. The night of the acquisition meeting, Anana’s dad disappears launching a tale that is part mystery, part love story, and part social commentary.

The Word Exchange ranks as my favorite novel of 2014. The lexicon Graedon employs had me scrolling through my dictionary, snatching up new words like a bee gathering nectar. The mystery twists through the tunnels and caves under Manhattan while unfurling histories of the English language and celebrating the creation of the dictionary. The love story pulses unobtrusively from the story’s second chapter until the end. And, the social commentary made me pause to examine my own co-dependence on my phone, the emptiness of some of my social media communications, and whether technology is possibly lowering my IQ.

Technology as a terrorist is not a new concept, yet its ability to weaken our mental vigor forges a novel perspective worth discussing.  We fill hours, or at least I have, slipping into the online vortex, scrolling through tweets and posts that do little to deepen friendships or expand our minds. What’s worse, as Graedon illuminates, is the dumbing down of our languages  that is creeping into social acceptance. My sister-in-law, an English professor, regularly fights the use of SMS-text language substituted for legitimate words in the papers her college student’s write. Language civilizes our society, providing the communication needed to live together and to come together when problems need solving, problems like a computer virus that wipes out banking systems or a solar flare that destroys satellite networks.

Language also builds anticipation which leads to my only gripe with Graedon’s tale. Throughout the novel, Graedon sprinkles hints about Anana’s judo accomplishments as a young woman. Yet, the hints never amount to anything. Anana doesn’t bust out her black belt moves on any of the bad guys. It was a character element that did little to move the plot forward, while building unsatisfied excitement for a dramatic action scene. Nevertheless I appreciated the discovery of the stalwarts protecting our language and the power of love to restore Anana’s hope.

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