I received a free copy of this ebook to review from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 8 April 2014.
In the beginning was the word. It might be hyperbole—though I don’t think it is—to say that without words, without language, civilization would be impossible. Words are collections of sounds that we collectively agree have meaning. They translate our ideas into something others can understand. They connect us to the thoughts from the dead and let us pass ours on to future generations. All that is preface to the fact that Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange scared the hell out of me. In this book, the ability to speak is stripped away from thousands, millions of people around the world through a dreadful, unintentional collision of two viruses.
A few years in the future, most people own a Meme—a device that can read and interpret its owners brain patterns to play preferred songs, adjust room temperatures, send messages and files to friends, update Life profiles, transfer money, and more. Memes can even administer medication for certain mental disorders, like anxiety and depression. They are ubiquitous. Anana Johnson, daughter of the chief editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, doesn’t think twice about reaching for her Meme when someone uses a word she doesn’t understand. Definitions can be had cheaply from the Word Exchange. No one thinks twice about it. Sure the words people look up are getting less and less obscure, but that’s not a big deal, is it?
On the Friday night before Thanksgiving, Anana’s father fails to show up at their weekly dinner at a local diner. She races to the Dictionary’s offices, only to find him missing. This is just the first in a rapid sequence of events that leads to the word flu spreading around the world. Anana writes about her experiences in New York from hindsight, months later, as part of her language therapy. She tells us about Synchronic, the company that manufactures Memes and owns the Word Exchange. She tells us about her ex-boyfriend, Max, who sells his company’s mega-hit game, Meaning Master, to Synchronic. She tells us about the Diachronic Society, seeming Luddites who dedicate themselves to the printed word and the unplugged life.
Graedon also gives us Bart’s journals. Bart is another harmless drudge at the NADEL. He harbors a crush on Anana, but is too shy and awkward to speak up. He’s also an unwilling friend to Max. He can’t muster a good enough argument to decline when Max offers him a job as a pet lexicographer. Unfortunately, this brings him into contact with the word flu. His journal entries become riddled with Russian and Chinese-tinged gibberish as he succumbs to the aphasia the flu brings. Together, Anana and Bart tell the story of how an audacious attempt to corner the market on the English language and develop a new, even more symbiotic version of a Meme went awry.
The Word Exchange is an amazing (and terrifying) tale, which is why I plan on recommending it to all the readers I know. I can’t be the only one to be freaked out by this book; I need to spread it around. Reading it on an iPad gave me an extra frisson of unease every time I had to look up a word I didn’t know (e.g. panicle). What I loved most about The Word Exchange are Graedon and her characters’ meditations on the importance and fragility of language. It’s incredible to me what we’ve built on words. A language can encompass everything from texts to Immanuel Kant and David Foster Wallace. Without it, we would be locked inside our own minds, cut off from everyone. Along the way, you will also pick up some delicious new terms for your own mental word exchange. If you love words, read this book.