Title: The Word Exchange
Author: Alena Graedon
Source: from publisher for review
Review Summary: This book uses words in the most fantastic and beautiful of ways. It made me think, it made me work, and it completely won me over. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book crafted with more attention to detail and it was a joy to read.
In the future, even definitions can be bought and sold. Books have essentially become obsolete. Technology has advanced to the point where people can relive memories, create art with no talent or training, and access any information they like without knowing anything. Anana’s father is one of the last anti-technology hold outs and is also responsible for publishing what will almost certainly be the last print dictionary. Right before publication Anana’s father disappears, leaving only a cryptic clue suggesting that he’s in grave danger. As Anana tries to find out what happened to him, she stumbles onto a conspiracy larger than she ever could have imagined. She’ll find herself in danger too as a mysterious word flu spreads, because language is power and some people will do whatever it takes to control that power themselves.
I loved this book so much, I’m not sure I can add anything new to the many rave reviews I’ve already read. Everything about it was fantastic. The plot was action packed and full of surprising twists and turns. The futuristic world the author imagined didn’t seem like a stretch, but was still completely mind-blowing. Despite the dangers of the technologies so readily adopted in this future world, some of the conveniences and entertainments sound like a dream. The author’s imaginings actually reminded me a lot of the non-fiction book Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku because it pushed me to think about the true wonders technology could achieve in the not too distant future. The science wasn’t explained in detail, but was described enough that I found it believable. It seemed the biology and technology had been very well researched, which is a sure way for an author to win me over. The narrators (Anana and one of her co-workers) were very endearing. I loved the way their relationship progressed, because it felt so natural. I also thought the author did an impressive job writing from the two perspectives in ways that were distinctly different and fit each character’s personality.
Of course, even with a rocking plot, an imaginative setting, and great characters, the real star of this book was always going to be the writing. The author’s love of words shines from every page. The unusual words the author sprinkles liberally throughout the text gave me ample opportunity to enjoy the irony of looking up words on my smartphone while reading a book about the dangers of relinquishing too much knowledge in favor of technology. I’m not sure if the author used these complex words simply because she loved them or if she was also pointing out that authors can write for the intelligent reader. Either way, I think that point was made. I wish words like those the author used would make it into our everyday parlance. I enjoyed that the author trusted me, the reader, to understand her beautiful and clever use of words. I also think it’s a great demonstration of the way an author’s assumptions about the reader’s linguistic abilities can actually shape the language readers know. The large words did make reading a bit of work, but it was very rewarding work.
I was also impressed with the way the book was designed. Each chapter began with a definition, one chapter for each letter in the alphabet. These definitions were sometimes those the words might have in the future and sometimes clearly just intended to make a point. They were often funny and always thought-provoking. I know this won’t be for everyone, but I also liked the use of footnotes. There are two criticisms I could see being leveled at this book. First, the digressions about words and philosophy do slow the plot a bit. And second, these digressions can get pretty pretentious, especially the bits on philosophy. However, this goes back to what I said about this book being worthwhile work. The author has constructed her book very cleverly and is making a passionate argument for the power of the written word, both through what she’s written and how she’s written it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book constructed with more care and that attention to detail made this a joy to read.