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Book Review: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon


By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

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Category: Contemporary Fiction / Dystopian Fiction

Author: Alena Graedon

Format: Hardcover, 374 pages

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

ISBN: 978-0-385-68013-4

Pub Date: April 8, 2014


Summary from Publisher:

In the not so distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers and magazines are a thing of the past, as we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication, but have become so intuitive as to hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order take out 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 final 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 video-conference) 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 and Anana devised to signal if one of them ever fell into harm’s way. And thus begins Anana”s journey down the proverbial rabbit hole. . .
Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague (who is secretly in love with her), Anana’s search for Doug will take her into dark basement incinerator rooms, underground passages of the Mercantile Library, secret meetings of the anonymous “Diachronic Society,” the boardrooms of the evil online retailing site Synchronic, and ultimately to the hallowed halls of the Oxford English Dictionary–the spiritual home of the written word. As Ana pieces together what is going on, and Bart gets sicker and sicker with the strange “Word flu” that has spread worldwide causing people to speak in gibberish, Alena Graedon crafts a fresh, cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller, and a thoughtful meditation on the price of technology and the unforeseen, though very real, dangers of the digital age.

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon is essentially a desperate letter of advocacy and love to the masses in its homage and sentimentality towards the written, printed, and verbal word. This dystopian novel is one in which its people are not only addicted to their technological devices, they are deeply integrated with them that the technology used itself necessitates and controls their daily functions with its ability to sense its users’ moods and desires.

One such device known as a Meme is so intuitive, it can order its user’s dinner or hail a cab on his or her behalf before asked, so intuitive in fact, that it can function this way even before its user is even consciously aware of his or her own desires.

With its mass use, its function is not only the normally acceptable form of communication, but an integral part of this dystopia’s lifestyle—until a new device is manufactured, the Nautilus, a semi-biological technological device that omits the necessity of hardware connective wiring and instead directly connects to the synopsis of the human brain by delivering input and output through neurons.

The result? An unexpected epidemic in the form of inexplicable headache, nausea, vomiting, fever, and a severe dysfunction in the processing of language through verbal slips, which eventually results in its worst cases—death.

The only people wary of technology’s cyber-attack on language, in particular, the printed word—and more specifically—the last remnants of the printed dictionaries such as the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), is a secretive and underground group called The Diachronic Society, whose mission is to warn people against the over-indulgent use of Memes and technology in general, while informing the public of its potential dangers in light of the symptoms ravaging the international community, as well as preserve what is left of language in print and its vital connections to our history and past.

What you get is a highly active, tense, and mysterious plot that centers around the disappearance of Anana’s father, Doug, the managing editor at The Dictionary, an active advocate of what is considered to be antiquarian and archaic forms of communication: photographs, art, books, and a pioneer in his distrust and prophetic view of the dangers of absolute technological use of the Aelph, the Meme, and the Nautilus.

The main characters, too, are rich in their respective connection to language.

Anana, a lover of words and words in print, but also an active user and believer in the use of her Meme, is almost as clingy to her boyfriend, Max, as she is to the use of technology—which both prove to be as dangerous to her emotional well-being as to her declining health.

Bart, a wonderfully academic and intelligent man, authoritative in his philosophical beliefs about language, its origins, its connection to history, its importance and metaphorical similarities to love.

Max, an egocentric, equally handsome, ambitious, and charming man whose business aspirations are as steep, self-indulgent, and misguided as his ethics, which secures him a manipulative and vain position as CEO of the new technological company called, Hermes, which merges a dangerous deal with the tech monster, Synchronic.

Together along with secondary characters—Dr. Thwaite, Victoria Mark, Vera, Laird, Vernon, Johnny Lee, Floyd—to name a few, create a devastatingly fast and quickly diminishing narrative, with words like, Jenda, exteen, ren, codalisk, zvono, kehzo, slank, konranm dazh, ooloochbu, words that prove the confusion and severe danger of language deterioration on a personal and communal level.

This fear-inciting book and cautionary tale of technological abuse is intelligently written to showcase our potential demise if we don’t guard ourselves against the potential addiction and dependency on online technological devices and the dangers of eventual extermination of print, language, thought, and memory.

If you’re a lover of words and language, and an advocate of the gift of literary privilege, reading, and books in print, this language dystopian novel is one you will readily empathize with and be glad, if not encouraged to continue your active enjoyment of literary pursuits. You might even consider yourself akin to belonging to the elusive, yet fictionally growing membership of the Diachronic Society.

Until then, let’s hope this dystopian novel is cautionary enough to prevent a potential epidemic of a language lost.

Until then, keep reading!


Characters: 3.5 stars

Plot: 4 stars

Language/Narrative: 3.5 stars

Dialogue: 3.5 stars

Pacing: 4 stars

Cover Design: 3.5 stars


Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Doubleday Canada for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


About the Author:

alena graedon


Alena Graedon was born in Durham, NC, and is a graduate of Carolina Friends School, Brown University, and Columbia University’s MFA program. She was Manager of Membership and Literary Awards at the PEN American Center before leaving to finish The Word Exchange, her first novel, with the help of fellowships at several artist colonies. Her writing has been translated into nine languages. She lives in Brooklyn.



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How dependent are you on your electronic devices? Your mobile phone? Your iPad? The Internet? Online social communities?

Do you think there is a substantial possibility of society moving away from the printed word to an eventual dependency on electronic technology as a form of communication?

How do you think we can work together to preserve what is considered to be antiquarian or archaic forms of communication such as photographs, art, books?

Do you agree with the premise of The Word Exchange in the possibility of an epidemic of a “Word Flu?”

How active are you as a reader? Has your way or desire of reading changed? For e.g. reading books in print to reading e-books online or on an e-reader?

What do you think these changes mean for publishing companies?


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