Recommended for 18+
While Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange isn’t written for YA/New Adult audiences, I wholeheartedly believe that these readers should read it, much in the way that they should read (if they haven’t already) Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Alex Awards, are you listening?
The Word Exchange takes place in an entirely believable, very near future. Society is too plugged in – smartphones appear to have morphed into devices called Memes, which think for you. Well, not really – but kind of. They anticipate what you want to do – hail a cab? Order a coffee? – and even offer you words when you can’t think of the word you’re looking for. Ana, a young woman who works with her father, Doug Johnson, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL, for short), uses her meme – something Doug has no patience for; he feels like books and language are a disappearing art. He has no idea how right he is.
There’s a virus – WordFlu – that’s erasing language, stealing it from the populace. They start by bungling words here and there, eventually devolving into gibberish, silence, and ultimately, death. When Doug goes missing, Ana goes on the search for her father and finds herself in the middle of something far greater than she, Doug, or the Dicionary could ever be – could there really be a plot in place to erase language?
Told in the form of journal entries by Ana and her friend, Doug’s associate Bartleby (also known as Horace), The Word Exchange examines what would happen in a society that leaves entirely too much to technology. It’s very unsettling, because it’s only a step or two from where we are now. Imagine if someone were to create an app that let you think of the word that was on the tip of your tongue, but you couldn’t remember, for pennies a download? Now imagine if you had a Seamless or taxi service available to you without even picking up your phone or pulling up your app? Those bothersome clicks and pokes to the touchscreen would go away, because your Meme would do all the work for you. Would society really hand over the reins so easily?
The book starts slowly, laying groundwork – the mystery of Doug’s disappearance happens fairly soon in the book, but Ana’s search builds until about halfway through the book, when the action just explodes. Layered and tautly paced, this book was unputdownable for the second half. She’s got complex, three-dimensional characters, and a plot that chilled me to the bone just thinking about it – because it could happen. Very easily.
Teens and young adults should be reading this book, because they’re the next generation – they’ll appreciate the setting and hopefully, the message that Ms. Graedon delivers. It’s a fantastic book discussion group title that explores technology, morality, and the politics of doing business in an increasingly online world. I loved this book and can’t wait to see some of the discussions that evolve around it.