|The Word Exchange
4.5 / 5
"On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary."
A dystopian novel for the digital age, The Word Exchange offers an inventive, suspenseful, and decidedly original vision of the dangers of technology and of the enduring power of the printed word.
In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are things of the past, and we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but also have become so intuitive that they hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order takeout 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 last 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 videoconference) 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 devised to signal if he ever fell into harm’s way. And thus begins Anana’s journey down the proverbial rabbit hole . . .
Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague, Anana’s search for Doug will take her into dark basements and subterranean passageways; the stacks and reading rooms of the Mercantile Library; and secret meetings of the underground resistance, the Diachronic Society. As Anana penetrates the mystery of her father’s disappearance and a pandemic of decaying language called “word flu” spreads, The Word Exchange becomes a cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller and a meditation on the high cultural costs of digital technology.
I don't even know where to begin in writing this review. I really loved a lot about this book, although it was incredibly dense and at times difficult to read. Mostly that was due, however, to the "word flu" infecting the pages of the book, causing the reader to stumble - as if afflicted with aphasia - through passages which contained a melange of real and fake words. What I found ironic was that the author - deliberately, I believe, although at times it also felt somewhat pretentious - used a lot of unique vocabulary even in her "uninfected" writing, which meant that I would occasionally find myself doing the thing the book warns against: looking up a word on my device and taking that definition at face value. While I do own a dictionary and can be certain that those definitions are as consistent as the day they were published, it is of course much more convenient to grab my nearby phone or tablet for reference.
The story itself was a mystery-thriller of sorts, but of course one made much more my speed by it being word-related. The story took a little while to get going, and was difficult to really get into right away - I think I gave it a few starts before committing. I think I was first charmed though, by Doug's endearing love of pineapples - to the point that he even named his daughter Anana! So cute. And as I said above, the author's use of ten cent words - while normally I'd dismiss that as pretentious - felt perfectly in line with the feel of the whole book.
Chapters alternate between being narrated by Anana, the protaganist, and her father's protege, Bart. The two relate the story of how the word flu became a pandemic shortly after the disappearance of Doug, and how things began to go terribly wrong once the world was unable to communicate without gibberish. I thought it was brilliant how the author referenced Lewis Carroll quite a bit, as he was an author famous for making nonsense popular! (Side note: this year marks the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland!)
I don’t know how to write much more about the book, except for that the characters are ones which I think will stick with me for a while. Even the more minor players were really quite vivid. I enjoyed watching everyone interact with each other.
P.S. I didn’t want to put these in my main post because they take up so much space, but here are some of my favorite quotes from the book!
"Doug's face put on its mask of tragedy. He only took it from its hook when someone died."
*****Re: accelerated obsolescence - "As a nation we've been practicing mass production since before World War II. We believed wastefulness would morph, by magic, into wealth. That if we created enough disposable products, it would help fire consumerism. And it did, for a while. But here's a dirty secret: resources are finite. Waste enough, and eventually it's all used up. Language, too. You can't just coin a word, use it once, and toss it out. But language is just the latest casualty. We always think there's more of everything, even as we deplete it. Not just petroleum or gold, glacial ice or water, bandwidth. Now even our thoughts and memories are disposable."
*****"[T]he 19th century saw the rise of what we came to call linear thought, a way of processing the world that was made possible only by the medium of books. By accident, the bound codex taught us sustained focus, abstract thinking, logic. Our natural tendency is to be distracted--to scan the horizon constantly for predators and prospects. Books made us turn that attention inward, to build higher and higher castles within the quiet kingdoms of our minds. Through the process of reflection and deep thinking, we evolved."
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