Book Review: Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange

Posted April 7, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange

The Word Exchange


Alena Graedon

dystopian, science fiction that was published by Anchor Books on April 8, 2014 and has 384 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

An ARC I received through NetGalley set in a dystopian horror of a world, an age-old story of progress and greed with a “rags-to-riches” success story in which greed overcomes commonsense.

My Take

Wow. Just wow. This was/is terrifying. When you think of how ubiquitous the computer is in our world, how reliant we are upon it, upon the Internet. How much I rely upon it! The “progress” our world is making in conjoining human with machine — think of Google Glass!

I’ve always been so impressed with how much people in the past could remember, could quote passages from memory. I wondered why we no longer did such a thing. A large part of it, I suspect, is that we have too many books in the world today. We read a book, and we’re done with it. We move on to the next book. In the past, there were so few books. Yes, there were a number of books printed, but so few had access to those so-very-expensive books. Can you imagine someone thinking a library of 300 books was huge? Think of how many people today own books on cooking, self-help, computer manuals, a bible. The textbooks a student will buy for a semester of learning would be considered a richness back then.

And when you own only a few books, you would read and re-read and re-read those books. It makes it much easier to memorize phrases and passages. Think of the movies we watch over and over. How we can quote lines from favorite movies. Then there’s our access to the Internet which can remember everything for us. A terrifying caution to consider in The Word Exchange.

Delving into the actual story, there are aspects of the Meme which would find me nailing this device to my head. I love the idea of what it can do for me! Yet when I read further, when Graedon reveals the ramifications of the Meme, I would willingly return to pen and paper, to wrack my memory for definitions, to look up the right word in the thesaurus, to thumb through encyclopedias to find information. Anything to avoid a world in which you have to consult a dictionary simply to get through email, a recipe, a conversation with someone.

Yes, the disappearance of text from documents is fanciful, but consider how many documents are now found in the digital library. How much we put in the cloud and on hard drives. It’s enough to make me look at my Kindle differently.

It took me days to read this story. I had to shake the horror of the possibility for such events to come to pass from my thoughts every once in a while.

“Words … are pulleys through time. Portals into other minds.

“Without words, we’re history’s orphans. Our lives and thoughts erased.”

Graedon writes of how words can take us places we’ve never been: the past, the future, soaring in a rocket ship, visiting an interdimensional plane, other worlds and other minds. Without the words to take us there, those redundant or infrequently used words, how would we get there from here? The richness of English is one of its beauties. The huge quantities of words that can be accessed, finding the exact word that provides just the right shade of meaning. How would we think? Remember? What happens when our brains are rewired, neuronal pathways changed? What happens in a cyberattack?

I love the idea that greater access to books changed us from a hunter-gatherer focus to a focus of intellect, on absorbing words, reflecting on the thoughts they engendered. I doubt, however, that inventing our own words, our own definitions, will make us reflect on language. There’s no responsibility involved. No thought behind it.

Then her comment about language being like love. A beautiful thought, and it means that language is only “something when directed toward another person”. I also love that comment about there not being only one definition for a word.

“Human nature only really exists in an achieved community of minds.”

There’s such a confusion in this. Sure some of it is normal stupid human behavior, but some of it is author confusion. Graedon tells us one thing then the other, flipping back and forth until I can’t see or think straight. Governments, Max, Johnny, Phin, and Bart run across clues that should tip them off, should make them sit back and take notice. They acknowledge problems but continue to blunder on, engaging in negative behavior. Even Doug knows so much of what is happening and yet doesn’t really say anything other than a few cryptic clues that anyone could dismiss as Luddite ravings.

There are a number of weaknesses in this including how Synchronic thinks it’ll make money in a world where no one can work anymore or communicate. A world in which people die. The only why for what was happening was money. How does anyone understand another? I don’t see how Max was trying to spare Ana “because he loved her”. What kind of guy acts as he does when he loves a woman? He buys a house months before, and she doesn’t know about it? Why wouldn’t Rodney tell Ana about the events of that night? Why did the board sign off on the sale? Why does Bart just accept Max’s offer? There are all these signs, clues, around him, and he ignores them. Why is Ana’s doctor so hard to get into if so many doctors are out of business? If Max and Johnny know about Taiwan, how come Vernon doesn’t seem to? What’s with Phineas? Why doesn’t he fly out? Why didn’t he give the whole letter to Ana?

There were two things in particular that drove me nuts: the footnotes and the made-up words. I eventually learned the truth of the footnotes, and wasn’t that a scary thing!? As for the made-up words, they were ideal in terms of making me feel the horror of what could happen if we lost the words we use, and I was incredibly irritated with not being able to understand what was written in the heavier sections. However, I don’t feel as though Graedon made the best use of this opportunity for creating a greater sense of panic or shock. We never get a sense of the individual victim’s horror; it’s all tell. Probably a good thing, as the idea of losing words was horrible enough, *grin*. And then again, why would they panic? They think they’re speaking just fine, and maybe that’s the horror of it!

I have to disagree about I being the “only letter that is a whole, full word”. Admittedly, it is the most interesting and distinctive word. But there’s also a — not very interesting and ubiquitous — and O, a letter used infrequently.

I do love her thoughts about words, how “every word is itself a memento of the past”, “living legends, swollen with significance”. It’s true. Words evolve, grow, change. It’s fascinating to read of a word or phrase’s origin, it’s original meaning. Now imagine losing that.

Mmmm, the publishing industry is in dire straits, eh? Bookstores. Libraries. All gone.

I LOVE the idea of a building shaped like an open book!

It seems a tiny bit steampunkish with those pneumatic tubes. I remember the ones they had at an old and tiny department store when I was a child. I was fascinated by how those tubes flew back and forth.

It’s interesting how Graedon populates the story with people who are barely mentioned. It’s an interesting trick which makes the story seem richer without much effort.

No kidding?? Graedon talks about our current obsession with writing; we’re so busy writing that we’ve stopped reading. We’re all writing (yep, this review is an example) out to people, out to the Internet. All expecting people will flock to read, but as Graedon says, it’s almost impossible to keep up with what people are putting out there.

Then that ending … bittersweet with pledges of higher demands of education, new libraries, more archives with reading and physical verbal interaction, a reversal of our current direction.

The Story

It’s the Dictionary’s launch in a few days, the culmination of 26 years of work. But Synchronic, a company more interested in promoting their subscription service, The Word Exchange, as well as their latest game, Meaning Master, intends a hostile takeover of the Dictionary.

The game. It’s all about thought, reflection on language, but its effects are being felt everywhere as new words keep entering the lexicon. Words that make no sense. Meanwhile, Doug is missing. People are following Ana. And people are losing their words.

The Characters

Anana “Alice” Johnson is her father’s assistant at the Dictionary, although she sees herself as an artist. Vera Doran is her mother who has taken up with Laird. Irina Doran is Vera’s mother; she and her husband are jerks.

Douglas Samuel Johnson, a.k.a., Dr. D, is the chief editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), and Anana’s father, with a love for pineapples. Laird Sharpe, a.k.a., Larry Shifflett, a former investment banker and now an anchor with PI News, had been one of Doug’s best friends before he took up with Vera. He had been part of the triumvirate with Fergus Hedstrom, who hates Laird’s guts. Ferg and Doug go off on adventures without Laird. Magnús Jökulsson inspired Ferg with thoughts of Iceland.

The Dictionary
Horace “Bart” Tate, a.k.a., Horse and Bartleby, is Doug’s protégé, the head of Etymologies as well as the Dictionary’s deputy editor, and he reads eight languages. Tobias is his brother; Emma is his sister.

Other employees at the Dictionary include Svetlana who reads five languages, Frank, Chandra is in marketing, and, Clara Strange, who is also a member of the Diachronic Society.

Friends and the Diachronic Society
Phineas Thwaite, Ph.D., is Doug’s friend and an outside contributor. Thwaite is a member of the Diachronic Society which meets in the Mercantile Library. Canon is his dog. Nadya Viktorovna Markova is a Russian woman with whom Phin fell in love. Clive is one of the security guards at Phin’s building. Other members of the Diachronic include Rob, a retired English teacher; Archie Rodrigeuz; Tommy Keach, who puts out Best; Martha Hertzberg, pianist and poet; Zheng Weiming, translator; Winifred Brown; Matt Faltstaff and Mara Levy; Victoria Mark and Susan Janowitz, who both had been with Vabner, Ingmar, & Breuer; Franz Garfinkel, a god of lexicography; Pavel; and, Yuki. Dr. Barouch specializes in genetics.

Max, a.k.a., Hermes King??, is the head of Hermes Corporation. A man with few morals and high ambitions. And Anana’s ex-boyfriend. His partners at Hermes are Johnny Lee, the programming genius; the bullying, crude Floyd Dobbs; and, Vernon Peach (also a member of the Diachronic Society).

Rodney Moore is one of the security guards at the Dictionary. Anana’s friends include Ramona, a school friend from St. Ann’s; Coco, a visual artist whose studio is next door to Ana’s; Audrey from NYU with a huge trust fund; Jesmyn; and, Theo. Officer Maroney and Detective Billings investigate Doug’s disappearance.

Bill Jennings works at the Oxford Dictionary. Chris Bennett and Alistair Payne are some of the guards.

The Bad Guys
The Creatorium is where they’re burning the books; Dimitri Sokolov is one of the security guards, and the one who is supposed to be guarding the Creatorium door.

Synchronic, Inc. manufactures gadgets that interface with your mind and emotions: the Meme is like a smartphone and a mind interface with the Internet. It learns from you and begins to take over the mundane aspects of your life. The Aleph is the first model of the Meme. The Nautilus is the latest. The company provides services such as The Word Exchange where, for the measly price of two pennies, you can access a definition or a term you’ve forgotten or didn’t know.

Steve Brock is the CEO of Synchronic. Rhys Koenig is one of the heavies.

The Cover and Title

The cover is perfect with its background of individual letters disappearing into nothingness at the bottom, much as words, language, is disappearing in this world. The title and author’s name is a yellow to deep-orange gradation from left to right.

The title is so innocuous, and yet The Word Exchange is world-changing, life-changing, a changing of the past.


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