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Monday, March 31, 2014

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

The Word Exchange is set in a world of words. It's a world eerily similar to ours, the geography is recognizable, the people seem real, but where we have iPhones and Kindles the characturers in Alena Graedon's thoughtful and thrilling novel have a device called the Meme. The Meme is insidiously useful. It not only holds your books, your movies, your life, it calls you a cab when you need one. It orders you a sandwich before you know you're hungry. It looks up words you don't know, it remembers what you don't need to recall. The Meme has changed the world. And now it's changing the words that make up the world. Words and their meanings are now bought and sold on The Word Exchange.

Douglas Johnson is the editor working on the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). On the eve of the publication of what will be the last print version of his life's work, Doug disappears. His daughter Anana, who had been working on the NADEL with her father, together with her bookish colleague Bart work to unravel the mystery of Doug's disappearance while all around them the world descends into a madness known as the Word Flu. People, including Anana and Bart are rapidly losing the ability to communicate.

The Word Exchange is the best kind of cautionary fable. It is not a hard science projection of future doom, it is instead a poetic recasting of our own age in a poetically warped looking glass. This is a book that values books on paper, people who think and people who preserve that which is old, not out of nostalgia, but because they know what is truly valuable.

For all it's fine ideas, The Word Exchange is first and foremost a good story. Anana's a plucky heroine and Bart is the kind of guy you hope she'll fall for. The mystery is mysterious and the setting is wonderful, populated with menacing folks of uncertain motives, escapes through hidden tunnels. strange messages sent through an ancient, secret pneumatic tube systems and late night meetings in old libraries. The Word Exchange is a thriller for folks thrilled by and informed by words.

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