Hi Alena! Thanks so much for joining us on Doing Dewey today. I loved your book and am very excited to have a chance to talk to you about it. Could you please begin by telling us a bit about The Word Exchange?
Hi, Katie! Thank you so much for inviting me! I’m utterly thrilled to join you, and I’m very grateful to you for having read the book, for your very kind words about it, and for giving me the opportunity to join you today!
The Word Exchange is set in the very near future, just a few years from now. The much-anticipated “death of print” has finally become a reality. That’s a problem for the main characters, because they work together at a dictionary—the last of its kind.
When The Word Exchange begins, the final print edition of their dictionary is just about to come out. After that, the protagonists’ future is uncertain, which, as it happens, is also true of the future of language. That’s because in this near-future world, smart phones have become even smarter than they are today, unlike the people who use them. The handheld devices that people rely on most are called Memes, which anticipate users’ wants and needs. But these handy little machines have also started to corrode people’s memories. There’s no need to remember things anymore when it’s easier just to use “memory.” In fact, many people have even started forgetting the meanings of some words. If a person encounters an unknown term—during a conversation, in a text, etc.—her device will ask if she wants to download its definition (for just a couple of cents) from a huge online database called The Word Exchange.
The novel starts on a Friday night. The dictionary’s Chief Editor, Doug Johnson, is supposed to meet his lovelorn daughter, Anana, for dinner. (Anana is also his assistant at the dictionary.) When Doug never arrives at their favorite diner, Anana goes looking for him in his office. She doesn’t find him there. Instead, she finds two disturbing clues. First, she notices that the encyclopedia-like entry written up about Doug in their dictionary seems to have vanished from the pages of the digital edition. Even more alarming, she sees a code word: Alice. Shortly before her father disappeared, he’d warned her that if anything happened to him, he wanted to use that name to communicate with her.
And just like that, Anana finds herself stepping through the proverbial looking glass on a search for her missing father, in a world that’s not quite the one that she thought she knew, and in which even words and language start to lose meaning, just as in Alice’s world. To find Doug, Anana enlists the help of her friend and dictionary colleague, Bart, and very quickly, they uncover a mystery that’s maybe even more unnerving than Doug’s disappearance: a virulent computer virus that has the power to corrupt and destroy digital language, and which seems frighteningly similar to a real, pathogenic, potentially life-threatening virus called word flu, which gives people a strange aphasia that garbles their speech.
Your book clearly taps into current concerns that we’ve become too dependent on technology, but I’m curious, where there any particular events or ideas which inspired you to write this book?
I’m part of a transitional generation. We were really the last to use print media—to write letters, keep journals, take notes in notebooks. Because of that, I’ve been really interested in the shift from print to digital that’s happened over my lifetime. I may have been especially aware of it for a couple of reasons. First, because my grandfather was a rare-book dealer, and bound books were really important in my family. And second, because I had some experiences with digital media right when it was getting popular that got me to reflect on some of its potential dangers.
As a teenager, I studied abroad in Beijing, and I was very conscious of electronic text’s vulnerabilities. For instance, emails could disappear if the infrastructure wasn’t good. I’d hit send, and all of a sudden, the thing I’d spent an hour composing would go poof. Government censors also restricted access to websites and could make things vanish overnight. That got me thinking about the possible implications of moving most of our data to this vulnerable, virtual space.
While I was in China, I was also reflecting a lot on language (I was trying to learn a new one, after all), and I was thinking in particular about how languages connect us across space but also time, to the future and past. I started wondering what might happen if language were to be corrupted in some way.
Then, a few years later, a really dramatic thing happened to me in college that involved disappearing text, and I started thinking about these questions again. When I was a senior, on the day before my honors thesis was due, I was home frantically trying to finish the last chapter when my house caught on fire. Thank God no one was hurt, but my roommates and I lost nearly everything. All my books were destroyed, and my laptop, and all the printed, annotated pages of my thesis. Remarkably, I didn’t lose the thesis itself, because I’d been emailing it to myself as I went along. Naturally, I was very happy for the existence of digital media on that day. But once I’d recovered from the shock (and finished the thesis), I started thinking again about the idea of language and text disappearing. That’s when the seeds for the book were planted.
And then, at graduation a couple of months later, my parents gave me a copy of the Oxford American Dictionary, to replace my dictionaries that had burned. As I was flipping through it, I discovered that it included encyclopedia-like entries for some famous people. I don’t know why, but the moment that I saw one of those entries, I had the strange flash of an idea: what if one of them were to vanish? What would the story of that be? And as you know, that’s how The Word Exchange opens: Doug disappears from his dictionary office, and at the same time, the dictionary entry devoted to him also vanishes.
That was a long time ago, though—nearly 11 years. And at the time, the idea of text disappearing from a page was a little bit fantastical and Borgesian, or Lewis Carrollian. By the time that I sat down to start writing the book several years later, though, it really wasn’t so implausible anymore, because the idea of what a page was had changed. E-readers were finally gaining popularity, smart phones had just been released, and we were all becoming familiar with the phenomenon of digital text suddenly going missing. In fact, after starting The Word Exchange, I heard of a now infamous case in which Amazon accidentally sold downloads of a book—1984, of all things—that it didn’t actually have the digital copyright to. When the company realized its mistake, it deleted all the copies from people’s Kindles before even warning them of what it was doing, as I understand it. And I think that really alarmed a lot of people, who were reminded that, oh yeah, that’s right, we don’t really ownthis text: we have access to it at the pleasure of the companies that distribute it, and it can just disappear.
I thought the format of your book enhanced the story, so I’d also love to hear how you came up with this particular format. How did you decide on elements like the encyclopedic structure of the book, the two narrators, the three sections, the footnotes, etc.?
That’s a great question. There were some elements that I knew I’d use from the beginning. I knew that there would be 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, and that I’d begin each one with a fake dictionary definition. I knew that Anana would use footnotes as part of her “linguistic rehabilitation,” to recover from word flu. I also knew that there would be two primary narrators, speaking in what I hoped would be a sort of exchange: one, Anana, who could explain the story of what had happened from a safe remove, a few months in the future, and the other, Bart, whose journal entries would demonstrate the effects of word flu in action, his language devolving over the course of the book. I hoped that that would offer some sense of the alienation and estrangement that he and others would feel if they didn’t have the ability to use language, but without actually alienating readers. I’m not sure I struck quite the right balance there. But my goal was to use language as its own most powerful tool for demonstrating the significance of its loss.
That said, I’ve heard from quite a few readers who’ve mentioned that they sort of felt like characters in The Word Exchange while reading it. Because there are some unusual words in the book—the characters are lexicographers, so they often come across words that the rest of us don’t, and sometimes they use them—and because lots of people are reading the book on e-readers, which give them the option to look up the definitions of words that they don’t know whenever they encounter them, several people have said that they felt sort of like the Meme users in the book who download definitions off of the Word Exchange database. And I have to confess that while I think it’s really cool that content and form sort of meet in that potentially interesting way, it’s not something that I planned.
I briefly worked in publishing in the mid- to late-2000s (at a big, glass building on Broadway), and e-readers were just not really on the scene yet. When I started writing the book, they still had barely taken hold. And while I own an e-reader (someone bought me a Kindle shortly after I finished the first draft of The Word Exchange), I don’t really read much on it. So when I’m writing, even though I do it on a computer, if I ever let myself think about being lucky enough to have whatever I’m working on published, I imagine the words ending up in print.
Ignorantly, I really didn’t think that much about the e-reading experience while I was revising The Word Exchange. At least not until the end, when my editor encouraged me to cut a lot of the footnotes because they’d be difficult to read in some digital formats. (Believe it or not, I did—there were scores more.) I thought that if people encountered words that they didn’t know, they’d either skip them, or, if they felt really motivated, they’d look them up online. But to the degree that I imagined them ever doing that, I confess that I imagined them doing it with a book next to them, not by clicking a button on a screen. I actually don’t even think that the capability to look up words in digital books that way came along until I was pretty far into the revision process.
So the longwinded answer to your question is that I did plan some of the structural elements, and how they might change the reading experience, but certainly not all.
I also have to know… Did you intentionally use words that people were going to have to look up so that we’d appreciate our dependence on technology for knowledge? Personally, I enjoyed the irony of looking up words on my smartphone while reading your book!
Ha! Well, I guess I’ve just answered that question. I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I know that not everyone did! (I really didn’t anticipate how strongly some people would respond to that.)
As a scientist and lover of technology, I adored your realistic but awe-inspiring picture of future technology. Did you do much research as you were putting The Word Exchange together, particularly research about science and technology?
Oh, that is so wonderful to hear. Thank you. That really means a lot. I did do quite a bit of research, and I was helped out by several really brilliant scientists. In developing the Meme device, I got a tremendous amount of assistance from a neuroscientist who also happens to be a M.D. and a classically trained composer, and who’s done quite a bit of his research on the auditory system, i.e., how we process sound, which of course came in handy when developing a device that affects how we process language. He was so helpful to me in figuring out how the Meme would need to look and work; that if it were to rely on EEG technology, it would require a headband, etc. After getting his help in developing the Meme over a series of many months (he was incredibly generous with his time), I came up with the first of what are actually two language viruses, although the first “virus” is actually just a misfiring of the Meme device.
I also worked very, very closely with a genius cancer geneticist/M.D./writer, who spent dozens if not hundreds of hours helping me to develop the next-generation Meme, the Nautilus, and the true language virus. He and I not only brainstormed extensively on what the device would need to look like, how it would work, what it would be able to do, and how it would make the creation and then dissemination of the virus possible, he also helped me revise the relevant sections of my book and pointed me in the direction of lots of resources that I doubt I would have found on my own. On biological computers, for instance, retrotransposons, biojection, and countless other things. I also read up on computer files stored in DNA, people who can infect their bodies with computer viruses, contagious viruses that can spread over wifi signals, computer viruses that can infect other computer viruses, etc. (That last thing—and several other things—I discovered thanks to another brainiac, a software engineer/writer, who was also hugely, hugely helpful, and who read lots of parts of the book.)
I did a lot of other research, too, talking to lexicographers, visiting dictionary offices, reading up on lexicography, interviewing an urban explorer, getting help from a Hegel scholar, reading about pneumatic tubes, etc. But in terms of the science, I’m most indebted to the people I’ve mentioned above.
Do you believe that we’ve reached the point where our dependence on technology could be dangerous? While reading your book, I was so glad I could look up words to appreciate the fun you were clearly having with language, but your book certainly highlights the downsides of dependence on technology as well.
I don’t know. That’s the honest answer. I’m tremendously grateful for everything that various technologies and the Internet have made possible, especially in the sphere of medicine. I rely on devices as much as anyone.
Of course there are very literal, practical questions about our safety when we’re overly plugged in. We all know about the hazards of texting and driving, for instance, which can lead to horrible consequences, as Werner Herzog’s recent PSA makes all too poignantly clear. Does heavy use of cell phones increase the risk of brain tumors? It’s a bit unclear. What I think you mean, though, is the more insidious dangers: psychological, social, mnemonic, cognitive. Those things are far harder to quantify.
But do I think that there are downsides to a dependence on technology? Yes. That’s part of the reason that I wanted to write the book. I think that my use of technology is changing me, and in some ways that I don’t like. I’ve noticed, for instance, that I find it harder to focus and be reflective when I’m on devices—it’s so easy to be distracted. That makes it harder to be creative in a certain, way, too. To draw unusual connections, to guess at things. The Internet can answer so many questions, so quickly and easily, that there’s a little less room for wondering, and maybe for wonder. I also worry a little about the ways in which my relationships are changing when so many of my interactions are mediated through devices and screens.
So while I don’t know if we’ve reached a point of danger, we’ve certainly reached a time of change, and as is so often the case at watershed moments, some of the changes aren’t great.
Could you tell us a bit about your background and what drew you to writing?
I’ve been drawn to writing for most of my conscious life. It’s the way that I process the world around me. I kept a journal from the time that I was really young. I think that trying to frame my experiences in narrative helped me understand them better, and figure out ways through difficult times. That’s probably at least in part because my parents are writers, so it’s behavior that I saw modeled, and that seemed pretty natural to me.
But I think that my desire to write fiction (they write nonfiction) really came from being a reader first. As I mentioned earlier, my grandfather was a used and rare book dealer who’d spent a long time working in publishing before that, and when I was growing up, he and my grandmother lived just down the street. I saw them—and his thousands of books—every day. Books were really the only sacred objects for my family, and we read together all the time.
When I was young, I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy with my mother and older brother, and that’s something I still really enjoy. As I got older, I also started reading lots of other things: mysteries, 19th century Russian classics, poetry, essays, philosophical treatises, Oliver Sacks’s neurological case studies, critical theory, all sorts of things. I’m sure that my weirdly eclectic tastes are part of the reason that I wrote a book that’s a little eclectic, too, in terms of genre and subject matter.
And I’ve also always been very interested in science. Along with my grandfather’s books, I grew up surrounded by medical journals, because my parents write on medical issues, and their office was piled high with back issues of The Lancet and The BMJ and all sorts of things that had disgusting pictures of rare dermatological conditions in them. I was utterly fascinated by it all. (Neither of my parents are MDs, although my mother is a doctor: she has a doctorate in medical anthropology. My dad is a pharmacologist, studying the effects of pharmaceuticals and other substances on the body and brain.) I always did quite well in my science classes in school, and I actually spent a summer when I was sixteen working in a neurobiology lab at Duke, helping with their Alzheimer’s research and studying the hippocampus. So I’m sure that my interest in science also strongly influenced what I wanted to write about.
Where can people find you online to learn more about you and The Word Exchange?
I actually don’t have much of an online presence, which may be fitting, but isn’t really on purpose. But I do have an author page on Facebook, where I post some things about the book, and some things that I just find interesting. It’s at: https://www.facebook.com/alena.graedon.author.
Thanks again Alena! I had a fantastic time reading your book and really enjoyed learning some more about it!