Set in the not-so-distant future (as in, probably the 2020’s, since the main character’s dad grew up in the 1970’s), our story takes place mainly in New York City. The primary narrator, Anana, is the daughter of Douglas Samuel Johnson, Chief Editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language. For several years, Doug has been working on the latest edition of the NADEL, thought to be the last edition that would be physically printed. Anana (which rhymes, we are told, with banana), who is in her late 20’s, works for her dad as his assistant. On the night our story begins, Anana is waiting for her dad to meet her for supper – except he never shows.
As Anana begins her search for her dad – who appears to have disappeared into thin air – she begins to discover many disturbing things. In the midst of her quest, a terrible epidemic sweeps through New York, causing people to lose their ability to communicate coherently. Unsure who she can trust, Anana strives to find her dad, avoid the plague, and solve the mystery of how this terrible disease began in the first place.
I have really mixed feelings about this book, and I’m hoping that writing the review will help me decide what star-rating I want to give it. There were moments that I thought it would be as low as a two, and times when I couldn’t imagine going lower than a four. Which means it’s probably going to end up at three, lol.
Anyway. This was a thoroughly engaging story. I could hardly put it down when I was reading it. Anana was likable and a concise narrator, presenting herself as neither ridiculously clever or absurdly foolish. I loved the way that each chapter was a letter of the alphabet, and that each chapter title began with that letter:
- A – Alice – n : a girl transformed by reflection
- B – Bartleby – n : 1: a scrivener – 2: a man with many friends and casual acquaintances: BART slang : life of the party <here comes ~, the life of the party>; a person who is never lonely, especially not on a Friday night
As the book progresses, the chapter titles/definitions become a bit more ominous, as we learn more about the fiendish plot to eliminate language as we known it, and I loved that, too.
- N – names as such – n : senseless words (e.g.): LOVE
- W – word – n : 1: a human relic, now obsolete – 2: archaic : a discrete unit of meaning that, when synthesized with other such units, may make a small scratch in the skin of time
The book was clever, and the pacing was good. The secondary narrator, through his journal, is a coworker of Doug and Anana’s, Bart. Bart is also intelligent and engaging, and quite in love with Anana, although she doesn’t know it. While romance doesn’t play a huge part in the story, it is enough to give Bart (and Anana) some fairly sensible reasons for doing some of the things they do, if that makes sense.
For me, the weakest part of this book was the world-building. I know it sounds a little silly, since this book is set in the next 15-20 years, but Graedon has created a world where technology has taken huge strides and become even more integrated into every day life. In some instances it works when, as the reader, you understand the world in snippets. But in this case, I spent the first 80-100 pages being really confused by Memes and the Word Exchange, and just trying to understand exactly what things were different from our current times.
I also felt like there were some logic gaps in some of the premises, which I think also made it hard to get into the world Graedon was trying to portray. It seemed a bit far-fetched to me that in a mere fifteen years, physical books are outdated antiquities only collected by people on the fringe. On the other hand, it is amazing how fast smart phones have integrated their way into our current culture, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine people becoming completely dependent on the next generation – basically, a smart phone that can read your thoughts and anticipate your needs.
If Graedon had spent a little bit of time setting the stage at the beginning of the book, I think the entire story would have benefited. As it was, I had to wait until about a hundred pages in before one of the chapters was a copy of an article decrying the use of Memes (the upgraded smart phones) and giving a sort of background on their history. I think that article would have made a great prologue to the book.
The book jacket is also partially to blame for my confusion –
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 … even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called the Word Exchange. … Doug … fondly remembers the days when people … actually spoke to one another.
The jacket implies that people are no longer in physical contact with one another, and no longer speak, but this simply isn’t true. Actually, everyone seems to communicate exactly the same, except their smart phones are a little more intuitive. I wasn’t sure if this was because our entire story took place among people who were slow to accept the new technology…??? There were just gaps in the concepts.
At times, Graedon’s obvious lesson of “we need to not depend completely on technology OR ELSE THE WORLD WILL COLLAPSE” came across a little heavy-handed. Despite the fact that I agreed with a lot of what she was saying, sometimes the book would slip into almost a lecture instead of just letting the story teach. Still, there were many thought-worthy moments throughout.
Memes may have a paradoxical effect … they tend to narrow rather than expand consciousness, to the point where our most basic sense of self – our interior I – has started to be eclipsed. Our facility for reflection has dimmed, taking with it our skill for deep and unfettered thinking.
I actually think that that is true, at some level. It’s part of the reason that I began blogging – as an exercise to help me actually digest and think about what I was reading. Even if I knew no one else would ever read these reviews, I think I would still write them, just because the act of analyzing and communicating my thoughts and feelings about a story – even if it is only to myself – stretches my brain.
So The Word Exchange was a mixed bag. The whole villain/bad guy was pretty poorly done, leaving me a bit confused as to who the enemy exactly was. The whole plague situation was really vague and not well explained, so I was still a bit confused on that end as well. The world building was disjointed at best, and I’m not completely convinced that Graedon’s fears are reasonable. But despite all that, it was a book that I enjoyed, and a book that I think had a lot to say. If you’re willing to put up with some ???!!!?? moments, I think it’s worth the read.
In the end? I think I’m going to go ahead and go with 4/5. I really did enjoy this book a great deal, although I felt like it could have been better.
Many thanks to Books Speak Volumes for bringing this book to my attention all the way back in 2014, and be sure to check out her review for more straight-up enthusiasm for the tale!! :-D