The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon has a fascinating premise. In the near future, the printed word is all but dead. Nearly everyone in the U.S. has a device called a Meme. Even better than a Smartphone, Memes intuit what their owners need. Need a cab? Your Meme will hail one before you even realize it. Searching for a word? Your Meme will quickly find it for you on the Word Exchange, for only a few cents per word.
Then people start showing signs of the Word Flu – using nonsense words instead of real ones, to the point where they can’t be understood. A powerful company has been buying up the rights to all the English words in the world, so Meme users have to pay more each time their Memes find a word for them. Copies of the last print edition of a great American dictionary are being burned; pretty soon the only place to look up words will be the Word Exchange. That and the Oxford English Dictionary, the lone holdout against greedy corporate interests.
Although I have a Smartphone, I do worry about the influence of digital devices and social media on our lives. When one goes out for a meal with family or friends, one or more of the people present are constantly checking their devices. Studies show autocomplete functions when we text or write are changing the way we communicate, as many people are too lazy to find the word they mean and accept the generic word everyone is using instead.
This book certainly taps into my own fears about what is happening in society. The author of a paper put out by the book’s word "underground resistance” writes, “Our facility for reflection has dimmed, taking with it our skill for deep and unfettered thinking.” (p. 85) I’ve had this thought myself, and ranted the following along with one of the characters:
As a nation, we’ve been practicing mass production since before World War II. We believed wastefulness would morph, by magic, into wealth. That if we created enough disposable products, it would help fire consumerism. And it did, for a while. But here’s a dirty secret: resources are finite. Waste enough, and eventually it’s all used up. (p. 345)
The Word Exchange is broken into 26 chapters, one for each of the letters in the English alphabet. Each chapter starts with a word and a definition. Although I loved the concept of this book, it’s not perfect. I had a very hard time following some plot points. There are two narrators, and one of them is suffering from the Word Flu. His chapters are filled with nonsense words, which got old very fast. But the book has a satisfying ending, and I recommend it to other readers interested in where technology is taking us. If you enjoyed Ready Player One, Amped, or A Working Theory of Love, you might enjoy The Word Exchange.
I read an advance reader copy of The Word Exchange. It was published on April 8, 2014. It can be found at the Galesburg Public Library in the NEW fiction area under the author’s last name.