Review: The Word Exchange


If you really want to start an argument online, bring up the topic of print versus digital in a community of readers and watch the fur fly. Though there will be a few moderate voices who agree the formats can co-exist peacefully, the conversation will most likely be polarized into two camps: those who believe a world where everyone reads digitally is inevitable, and those who believe e-reading is a huge mistake. The arguments are complicated, passionate, and enough to make a person avoid internet debate altogether, except that nobody wants to stop reading books and discussing them.

Enter Alena Graedon and her first novel, The Word Exchange. Heavily influenced by the print versus digital debate, Graedon’s characters come down on the side of slow reading, analog texts, and in-person communication, a perspective that will irritate some, overjoy others, and definitely add more fuel to the already-blazing debate about  the future of reading.

photo © Beowulf Sheehan. Click through to read interview.

Photo © Beowulf Sheehan. Click through to read an interview with Graedon.

Our heroine, Anana Johnson, lives in a world where print is already mostly dead. There are a few bookstores and libraries left, but most reading and communication takes place via Memes, highly jacked-up smartphones that are so very good at what they do, they can order a taxi for you after you’ve had a few drinks and auto-dial your favorite restaurant the minute you’re hungry. Anana’s dad, who is working hard to publish what will be the last ever print edition of the dictionary, is staunchly anti-technology, and warns Anana that she should stop using her Meme, before things go Terribly Wrong. Anana humors him and goes about her digital-saturated life…until one night Dr. Johnson (get it?) doesn’t show up for their usual dinner date, which is just the beginning of a chain of events that rapidly spirals into worldwide chaos.

The fault, of course, lies in the Memes…or, rather, the small group of greedy men (and, curiously, they are all men) who got rich creating and selling them, not realizing that they were unwittingly contributing to the creation of a virus that, after infecting all the gadgets, infected language itself. With only the help of a small group of her father’s friends, Anana must not only find Dr. Johnson, but also resist succumbing to what eventually becomes known as Word Flu, which, if it doesn’t kill you, can leave you mute and unable to write.

Far-fetched, to be sure. But if we can accept dystopian fiction with teenagers fighting to the death, why not a language virus that can strip us of our humanity? Even if you’re on board with the premise, the narrative itself is slow and cumbersome, most likely on purpose to prove a rhetorical point: contemporary eyes, used to scanning phones and computer screens, have a more difficult time with long paragraphs, meandering storylines, elevated vocabulary, and interior monologue. In fact, what little actually happens in the book is surrounded by long passages about it happening, and what people think about it happening, which is both annoying and brilliant at the same time. You can’t just thoughtlessly burn through Graedon’s book: you have to pay attention to every word, and really think about it, which makes reading this book a test of how much you actually enjoy reading.

Broken up into twenty-six chapters–one for each letter of the alphabet–Graedon’s book takes the reader on a long, meandering journey through our own culture. It’s like a novelization of The Shallows, and more than a little didactic. As someone biased in that direction, I didn’t mind, but what I honestly don’t understand is why Graedon chose to also release the novel in digital format: if she really believes what she’s writing about, wouldn’t it make sense to have it exist in print only? Or was the irony–and the chance to make more money–just too great?

You can see that this is not a book you read for pleasure. It’s a book designed to make you think first, and if you happen to have a good time along the way, so much the better. I definitely had a good time, but unless you’re as interested in the future of reading as I am, you may find this a bit tedious. And that, I’m afraid, might be the litmus test of whether The Word Exchange is a novel, or loosely-disguised prophecy. Recommended for library workers, passionate readers, and anybody who enjoys a good argument about technology and culture.


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