I was MIA yesterday because I thought I could finish reading The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon really quick and even blog about it, but it turned out I had more pages than I thought left. Now, just now I have finished it. Why such a hurry? It was due back at the library on Tuesday. My apologies to the next person in line waiting for their turn, I hope you understand.
Having just finished the book I haven’t had time to digest but since it will be going back to the library ASAP I thought I’d better write about it before I no longer had it in my hands. So forgive me if this turns out choppy and not quite all the way thought out.
The time is the not too distant future. We’ve gone from smart phones to a device called a “Meme.” Memes are pocket-sized devices that come with headphones and what is called a crown that you can wear on your head or other part of your body. This wearable tech is like the most personal of personal assistants. It can call a cab for you or order dinner but it also can tell when you are stressed or worried and can help sooth and calm you. It can diagnose illness, automatically look up words you don’t know, and perform a whole host of other tasks for you. People have become so reliant on them for so many things that they can no longer do without them.
So when the word flu strikes it happens fast and spreads like wildfire. The word flu is a computer virus that was somehow combined with human DNA and so can infect people through their Memes as well as person-to-person. It begins with actual flu symptoms, headache, fever, fatigue, but then people begin to exhibit aphasia — they start substituting nonsense words for real words but they don’t know they are doing this. Word flu, it turns out, can be mild as well as fatal. Treatment comes in the form of antivirals, a language fast, reading print books, writing with a pen and paper, and having conversations with uninfected people.
The story that takes place before and during this outbreak that begins in the United States and eventually spreads worldwide, centers on Anana Johnson, a twenty-something talented visual artist who makes a living working for her father, Doug Johnson. Doug is a lexicographer and in charge of the North American Dictionary of the English Language. They are less than a week away from publishing the third edition, a huge multivolume work that is sort of like the OED of American English. It and the OED are the last dictionaries to actually be independently owned and published. All other dictionaries have sold out to the makers of the Meme.
When Doug suddenly goes missing Anana, also called Alice (as in Wonderland), sets out to try and find him. But the word flu outbreak begins about the same time and so many strange things are going on — there is a secret society, a Creatorium where fake words are created, words disappearing from the dictionary — not to mention that Anana gets the flu. But Doug, in a moment of prescience, had forced two bottles of antivirals upon her a week before he disappeared. She is also lucky that she only gets a mild case.
It is a fun book that I think a good many avid readers will enjoy. There are lots of bits about words and language:
Words, I’ve come to learn, are pulleys through time. Portals into other minds. Without words, what remains? Indecipherable customs. Strange rites. Blighted hearts. Without words, we’re history’s orphans. Our lives and thoughts erased.
Words are living legends, swollen with significance. We string them together to make stories, but they themselves are stories, encapsulating rich, runny histories.
Of course, as you might expect, the book is sprinkled with $10 vocabulary words like cimicine as in “the building’s ill-lit, cimicine basement.” I admit I looked it up online, because I couldn’t be bothered to get up and check my giant American Heritage Dictionary, a dictionary I love but hardly ever use because, well, I have to get up and go to it and there is usually a computer or iPad close to hand that is so much more convenient. If a word flu ever really does strike, I am obviously going to be doomed for no other reason than laziness.
The book’s structure is also part of the entertainment. Each chapter is a letter for the alphabet and goes from A to Z with a word and definition at the beginning of each. The book is also broken up into three sections, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. And with each of those sections the part of the story works exactly as the section title suggests.
Besides the structure there are a lot of Alice in Wonderland references. the book even has as an epigraph of the exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
There are also many references to Samuel Johnson and his dictionary. And there is philosophizing with Hegel that made me interested in reading Hegel, which was a surprise given how painful the experience was in college. But it sounded so interesting and, my brain tries hard to convince me, maybe this time it will be different since there is no paper or grade or know-it-all classmate to make me feel dumb as a rock. Yeah, I know, we’ll see if Hegel happens or whether I conveniently just don’t have the time.
The Word Exchange is a quick fun debut novel. It is part conspiracy theory, part thriller, part mystery, part science fiction, and part warning. A little something for almost everyone.