I am definitely a person who believes that technology can help us improve our lives. Access my music from the cloud, anywhere or anytime? Sign me up! Geo-location services that help me know where I am or where my loved ones are and help to alleviate worry? Sign me up! Self-driving cars that mean an absence of road rage and accidents based on poor human decisions? Sign me up! Hundreds of books in my hand wherever I travel? Sign…oh, you get the idea.
Of course, people like me who are excited about these advancements have their counterpoint in technology luddites whose arguments are alternately based in (sometimes very real) fear (Hackers can get access to my information!) or aesthetics (Stories must be printed on paper! I love the way books smell! Trees be damned!).
When I first received an invitation from NetGalley to review Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange, I was afraid it would be a treatise against technology disguised as a novel, and to some extent, it is. Although it can be a bit heavy-handed at times, overall The Word Exchange is truly a literary thriller, and a highly entertaining one at that, and it also makes some very valid points about language and technology in society.
As the novel opens, Anana Johnson discovers that her father, Douglas Samuel Johnson, has disappeared. Doug is the chief editor of one of the last remaining print dictionaries, the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). (For those of you who might worry, the other physical dictionary still in existence in The Word Exchange is the Oxford English Dictionary.) Although the NADEL is approaching the publication of its third edition, its existence is threatened by an application called The Word Exchange, which provides words and definitions of words through an individual’s Meme, a personal device similar to a smartphone with predictive capabilities. For example, a Meme can order another drink for you if you need it, call for a cab when you are too drunk to drive, or, whenever the occasion is warranted, provide the word that is right on the tip of your tongue. (By the way, this kind of technology is already a thing.)
As more people have become dependent on their Memes, it seems they have also started to spend less time thinking for themselves. This dependency is exploited by a virus introduced into The Word Exchange, whereby people searching for or trying to think of a word are being given entirely new words with new definitions. These words are slipping into everyday speech and making communication anywhere from difficult to impossible, depending on the severity of the case.
Anana enlists the help of her Doug’s close friend, Bart, another NADEL employee, to help find him. For his part, Bart is in love with Anana, who is quietly suffering from a break up with a mutual “friend” of Bart’s. And really, folks, this is about all the information I can give you because: A) the plot is incredibly intricate, which most of the time lends to the fun but occasionally causes it to become bogged down with scenes designed to show (again and again) how the infected technology is affecting the population; and B) the book is a thriller of sorts and I’m not willing to spoil the fun.
The novel is arranged by chapters that each start with a letter of the alphabet and provide a clue about the chapter contents:
Bartelby \bâr-tǝl-bē)\, n 1 : a scrivener 2 a : a man with many friends and casual acquaintances : BART b slang : life of the party ; a person who is never lonely, especially not on Friday night
The chapters alternate between Anana’s and Bart’s point of view as they try to uncover what has happened to Doug. Anana’s are straight narrative, while Bart’s are told through a series of journal entries. The language disease that affects the characters is sometimes serious but also used to great comic effect:
The driver was gruff. My adrenaline had worn off enough that I was starting to feel the first boln of an emotional hangover after what I’d said to Ana’s family. But most of all I was disconcerted by her mention of a doctor. And what she’d teedom about a device also had me kind of spooked; it got me started worrying a bit about the Meme. While I was shyoxing, I pold a text from Ana on my phone. It said, “I rain chuang kist you away. Sorry tic konдooлeeteч display. Stop u hui dome tode.” And then a message appeared with the blue “WE” Word Exchange logo: “Would you liek the meaning? Yes/No.”
In truth, the “new” words infecting people in the book can be a bit distracting, but even though Graedon uses them comically they never become a joke. The Word Exchange is also peppered with wordplay and literary references that deep readers will enjoy. Likewise, if you’re interested in or familiar with the culture of technology start ups, you’ll recognize some of the characters Bart gets mixed up with. (In fact, I finished reading this right around the time Silicon Valley premiered on HBO, and even before I started watching the show I was already picturing warm, hapless Bart as the actor Zach Woods, whom some of you might also recognize as Erin’s boyfriend from The Office.)
As a person who still refuses to use most popular abbreviations or shortened words (“u” for you, “tho” for though), even on Twitter, the parts about the disintegration of language bothered me a bit. While I was reading the book I remembered a news story about vocabulary words that were being removed from the SAT test and replaced with more “relevant” words that kids experience in everyday life and classrooms. (I can’t find any examples, but I seem to remember seeing another article that said “uncommon” words such as sagacious and plethora were on the list. And in fact, Google Drive has marked sagacious as misspelled as I type this—it isn’t—and offers no replacement or suggestion. Shudder.) To be sure, the dumbing down of our vocabulary has already started, but I for one am disinclined to blame technology, the same way I do not fault my car for my lack of muscle tone. Luckily, Graedon only gets a bit heavy-handed on a few sections of the book, and she herself readily admits to a bit of smartphone addiction.
Overall The Word Exchange is a fun, intelligent mystery novel. Four out of five stars.
Full disclosure: I received a copy of The Word Exchange from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.