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The Word Exchange: A Novel [Kindle Edition]

Alena Graedon
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (190 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A dystopian novel for the digital age, The Word Exchange offers an inventive, suspenseful, and decidedly original vision of the dangers of technology and of the enduring power of the printed word.

In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are things of the past, and we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but also have become so intuitive that they hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order takeout at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called the Word Exchange.
     Anana Johnson works with her father, Doug, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), where Doug is hard at work on the last edition that will ever be printed. Doug is a staunchly anti-Meme, anti-tech intellectual who fondly remembers the days when people used email (everything now is text or videoconference) to communicate—or even actually spoke to one another, for that matter. One evening, Doug disappears from the NADEL offices, leaving a single written clue: ALICE. It’s a code word he devised to signal if he ever fell into harm’s way. And thus begins Anana’s journey down the proverbial rabbit hole . . .
     Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague, Anana’s search for Doug will take her into dark  basements and subterranean passageways; the stacks and reading rooms of the Mercantile Library; and secret meetings of the underground resistance, the Diachronic Society. As Anana penetrates the mystery of her father’s disappearance and a pandemic of decaying language called “word flu” spreads, The Word Exchange becomes a cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller and a meditation on the high cultural costs of digital technology.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* What if we became so dependent on our gadgets that we lost our ability to speak? That’s the big idea in Graedon’s entertainingly scary debut, a bibliothriller of epidemic proportions. In the nearish future, in a steampunky New York where messages travel by secret pneumatic tubes, Anana Johnson’s father, Doug, is preparing to launch the final edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). Then he suddenly goes missing (both in real life and from his biographical entry in the dictionary), Anana sees something bizarre in the NADEL’s basement, and people start talking funny. Aphasia is the first symptom of “word flu,” a sickness that scrambles speech and renders some speakers permanently silent. It’s all tied to people’s habit of using their Memes (think iPhones to the tenth power) to buy words when they can’t remember them, Anana eventually learns. As in Dave Eggers’ The Circle (2013), Graedon’s fears about technology are clearly evident. There are a few stutters in the structure and pacing, but this is a remarkable first novel, combining a vividly imagined future with the fondly remembered past to offer a chilling prediction of where our unthinking reliance on technology is leading us. And, as you’d expect, Graedon’s word choice is exquisite. --Keir Graff


Praise for The Word Exchange:

“[A] nervy, nerdy dystopic thriller.... Clever, breathless and sportively Hegelian in theme ... The Word Exchange combines the jaunty energy of youngish adult fiction (boyfriend trouble, parent conflicts, peer pressure and post-collegiate jitters) with the spine-tingling chill of the science-­fiction conspiracy genre.... Graedon makes you wring your hands for her heroine—and tremble for the future of the English language throughout her 26 chapters, achieving the singular feat of turning the alphabet into a cliffhanger. As much fun as Graedon has with her Borgesian doomsday scenario, her novel folds serious meditations on language and society into its manhunt.”
—Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

“The relationship between language, its vessels, and the woes of the status quo has been a longtime favorite theme of dystopian fiction, and it is front and center in The Word Exchange, the fast-paced, thrill-a-minute début novel of Alena Graedon.... [S]he creates a powerful sense of mystery about what, exactly, is causing ‘the word flu,’ how it is spreading, and why it is affecting different people in different ways.... [I] raced greedily to the last page, enjoying Graedon’s plot-weaving every step of the way.”
—Peter C. Barker, The New

“Great.... Set in the near future, the novel is a sobering look at how dependent we are on technology and how susceptible we are to the distortions of language.”
The Washington Post

“A wildly ambitious, darkly intellectual and inventive thriller about the intersection of language, technology and meaning ... Language becomes a virus in this terrifying vision of ... print-empty, Web-reliant culture. Students of linguistics may run screaming from this dystopian nightmare by Brooklyn-based debut novelist Graedon, but diligent fans of Neal Stephenson or Max Barry will be richly rewarded by a complex thriller. In fact, the novel is as much about lexicography, communication and philosophy as it is about secret societies, conspiracies and dangerous technologies.”
—Kirkus, starred review

“Graedon's spectacular, ambitious debut explores a near-future America that's shifted almost exclusively to smart technologies, where print is only a nostalgia, and nostalgia is only an archaism ... With secret societies, conspiracies, and mega-corp Synchronic's menacing technologies, Graedon deploys all the hallmarks of a futuristic thriller, but avoids derivative doomsday sci-fi shtick. Instead, her novel is rife with literary allusions and philosophical wormholes that aren't only decorative but integral to characters' abilities and limitations in communicating, and it succeeds precisely because it’s as full of humanity as it is of mystery and intellectual prowess.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“[The Word Exchange is] a bibliothriller of epidemic proportions ... [A] remarkable first novel, combining a vividly imagined future with the fondly remembered past to offer a chilling prediction of where our unthinking reliance on technology is leading us. And, as you’d expect, Graedon’s word choice is exquisite.”
Booklist, starred review

“Alena Graedon’s dystopic thriller The Word Exchange... conjures a not-too-distant-future society rendered aphasic by digital technology.”
—Megan O’Grady,

“[A] propulsive, twisty future-noir ... [Graedon’s] vision of the future is less alarmist than alarmingly within reach. Her attention to language—and the breakdown of language—invites comparisons to writers like Anthony Burgess and Lewis Carroll. Anana is an Alice figure, and the New York City she lives in a grim, Web 4.0 wonderland.”
The Daily Beast

“Alena Graedon makes what sounds like a preposterous premise believable in this clever first novel, a mystery set in a dystopian near future and built around the disappearance of Douglas Samuel Johnson, the editor of the North American Dictionary of English Language.
The Chicago Tribune

“Sharp ... [D]azzling ... [The Word Exchange] offers a snappy, noir-inflected vision of a future New York suffering from an epidemic of aphasia brought on by super-smartphones ... Graedon’s language is sparklingly inventive...[and] so enjoyable...Graedon is too good a writer, it seems, to let an opportunity for linguistic play slip ... Despite all of its considerable linguistic sophistication, the novel offers a blunt message: Words are good. Reading is good. Books are good.”

“[A] literary thriller . . . . An ambitious debut, The Word Exchange is a cautionary tale with sophistication. . . . Unsurprisingly, Graedon’s own language is essential to the success of The Word Exchange—it’s erudite, ruminative, and complex.” —Meredith Turits,, April Editor’s Pick, April 21, 2014

“[I]f you’re like me and the notion of dictionary lovers as heroes and smarmy new-media guys as villains sounds great to you, then this is our book of the year.... This is the mainstream lit novel that truly is speculative fiction, science fiction, and just plain awesome fiction all at once.”

“Graedon’s novel is a delightful mash-up of noir, cyberpunk and novels about post-collegiate angst. Its treatment of language as a virus will remind science-fiction aficionados of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash or Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, while its exploration of the relationship between memory and identity recalls such films as Blade Runner, Memento and Inception. And its inventive use of language, as both its narrators begin to succumb to word flu, evokes the playful linguistic experimentation of Anthony Burgess.... It’s a brainy sort of book about what happens when we stop using our brains.”
—Cyrus Patell, The National

“[Graedon] knows how to ratchet up mystery. In [her] dystopian future, face-to-face interfacing is finished and even email is a fading memory; when the man working on the last-ever dictionary goes missing, his daughter sets out to find him and discovers murky anti-literate corporate forces and outposts of word-loving outlaws.”
Esquire (UK)

“Can you imagine a future without books, newspapers or magazines? Alena Graedon has done just that—her debut novel conjures up a scarily plausible dystopian future, where print is dead and intuitive handheld devices are the only form of communication.”
The Lady Magazine (UK)
“[A] crackling good thriller and a rumination on language. . . . Philosophically complex, The Word Exchange is a compelling and thought-provoking read. After reading this ambitiously inventive story about the intersection of language and technology, you’ll never look at your smartphone the same way.”
Chatelaine Magazine (Canada)

The Word Exchange . . . addresses a concern shared by many over the impact of the digital revolution. As the question is popularly expressed: Is the Internet making us stupid? . . . . The Diachronic Society have pills for the word flu, but the best antidote may be a return to old-fashioned, slow reading.”
The Toronto Star
The Word Exchange is hard to put down and harder not to think about.”
The Ottawa Record

"Alena Graedon's spectacular debut is a story for our age of  'accelerated obsolescence.' A genuinely scary and funny mystery about linguistic slippage and disturbance, it's also a moving meditation on our sometimes comic, sometimes desperate struggles to speak, and to listen, and to mean something to one another. To borrow Graedon's own invention, The Word Exchange is 'Synchronic' -- a gorgeous genre mashup that offers readers the pleasures of noir, science fiction, romance and philosophy. It's an unforgettable joyride across the thin ice of language." 
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! and Vampires in the Lemon Grove

“Imaginative, layered, and highly original, The Word Exchange is an engagingly creepy story of technology gone wrong and a clever meditation on the enduring mysteries of language and love.”
—Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Age of Miracles

"Wow! This highly addictive future noir is also terrifyingly prescient. Set in a parallel New York filled with language viruses, pneumatic tubes, and heartbreak, Alena Graedon's book is luminous and haunting at every turn. I will never look at words in quite the same way—and neither will you."
—Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

Product Details

  • File Size: 1929 KB
  • Print Length: 386 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0345806034
  • Publisher: Anchor (April 8, 2014)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #208,149 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stop the spread of the Word Flu! April 8, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
What if your iPhones and iPads were more than what they are? What if they could sense what you needed before you even asked? What if they could answer your questions, not by you asking them to Siri, but before you even realize you were doing to think them?

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon describes a similar type of world.

In the not so distant future, the Meme, which is kind of like the most ridiculously amazing iPhone/iPad ever, has taken over. People love their Memes and rely on them a lot. Gone are books, paper, letters, dictionaries. . .

But what comes with this convenience? A virus. A word flu that is taking over, destroying coherent speech and causing individuals to become deathly ill.

Anana (like “banana” without the “A”) works at the Dictionary, where her father is in charge of one of the largest Dictionary rewrites in history. When he goes missing, and the word flu begins to rear its ugly head, Anana knows there is more to the story, including her ex-boyfriend potentially having caused this virus and disorder.

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon was an outstanding book, written in 26 chapters each named for a letter of the alphabet. Told from both Anana’s and Bart’s (her father’s close co-worker) perspectives, The Word Exchange leaves you thinking. Are we really that far away from a society where everyone relies too much on electronic devices?

The Word Exchange is gripping, captivating, yet realistic as well. It’s the kind of book that might encourage you to put down your iPhone and check out some books, letters, or even a physical dictionary.

What word would you miss if it disappeared from the English language?

Thanks for reading,

Rebecca @ Love at First Book
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
If you are a lover of words and thrillers, this novel is for you. Yes, there has been a flurry of futuristic novels lately that dwell on the darker side of digital life, but I found this to be one of the most satisfying.

The lead character, Anana Johnston, is believable as is her quirky lexicographer father and her various love interests, despite a few stereotypical hobbies and attributes on behalf of the men. For a novice author, I felt the plot twists and close calls were mostly skillful. The book really pulled me in and through to the end.

I suspect that not every reader of novels would be quite as horrified as I over the dire prospect of abstruse volumes being lost to humanity, but the arguments made by the characters and author as to the absolute necessity of words, languages, history and connection are profound.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Our facility for reflection has dimmed." March 18, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Alena Graedon's "The Word Exchange," is a clever and expressive dystopian novel about the importance of meaningful written and oral communication. The heroine, who shares narrating duties with other characters, is twenty-seven year old Anana Johnson. She is an artist and employee of her father, the brilliant Douglas Johnson, chief editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language. After twenty-six years of revision, the forty-volume third edition of the NADEL is complete and about to be published; a launch party is planned to celebrate this auspicious occasion. When Douglas suddenly vanishes, Ana is deeply concerned. She is destined to endure an ordeal that will change her perspective on life, love, and what it means to be human. In addition, she will come to suspect that her former boyfriend, the charismatic Max King, may not be the man she thought he was; that Bart Tate, Doug's protégé and the dictionary's deputy editor, may be more substantial than his geeky appearance would indicate; and that we must all safeguard language, a treasure that links our past, present, and future. "Words," Ana observes, "are pulleys through time. Portals into other minds. Without words, what remains?"

As Ana combs through her father's possessions and snoops in the basement of the New York City building where she works, she learns that a malevolent virus is altering communication and affecting people in unpredictable ways. Ana is afraid, but not cowed. She is determined to find out what happened to her father and intent on helping to save his dictionary, which is in danger of being eradicated. Graedon's villains are blinded by greed, obsessed with power, and too ignorant to understand the preciousness of what they are destroying.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
"On a very cold and lonely Friday night last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.”

In her debut dystopian novel of and about words and meanings, understood and not understood, Alena Gradeon makes clear that language, the importance of language, and need for language in holding not just society, but families, people, and even love together is something that we cannot do without.

The Word Exchange (published by Doubleday) is both dystopian and a thriller in one “between the covers page turner.” Set sometime around or after 2020, the story begins the sudden disappearance of Douglas Samuel Johnson, Chief Editor of North American Dictionary of the English Language and the determination of his daughter Anana’s, (code named Alice after Alice in Wonderland) efforts to discover why and possibly where he is.

Her search leads us on a wild ride of increasingly stifling technology that creates both linguistic, physical, social, political, economic, and relational breakdowns. And also introduces us to a tension which is talked about today between the history and stability of the printed word (now very much gone in the novel) verses the increasing use of technology and its own language, like texting, alongside the increasing use of visuals such as pictures to communicate.

As she travels above and below the streets of New York, we are forced to confront the corporate giant Synchronic whose Word Exchange is an effort for old words and meanings to be replaced with new ones. Words are for sale. Meaning is for sale.

We also encounter a fascinating new world of what I call Technology 4.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A Book for People who Love Books
Anana Johnson's father disappears just days before his life's work, the third edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, is set to debut. Read more
Published 1 day ago by G. Messersmith
3.0 out of 5 stars Loved this book
I loved this book - until the end.
Word Exchange is a vividly imagined novel about a dystopian future where the technological assistance we've come to rely on is derailed and... Read more
Published 10 days ago by Llylesmith
3.0 out of 5 stars What?
I think that this book would be fascinating for someone who is smarter than I. I was lost in the classical references, the made up language. Read more
Published 11 days ago by P.A.W.
3.0 out of 5 stars third rate teenage dating "oh dear he saw me in the morning when i...
much more youngish adult fiction than i was prepared for. third rate teenage dating "oh dear he saw me in the morning when i wasn't wearing a bra and my hair was a mess"... Read more
Published 13 days ago by marsh
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
If you love words and also a fast-paced thriller, chances are good that you'll enjoy this book. It's one of those stories that has me convinced it's all real. Read more
Published 15 days ago by Pam Horne
3.0 out of 5 stars It was an interesting premise, but difficult to read ...
It was an interesting premise, but difficult to read. It held my attention even though I struggled​ with the writing.
Published 15 days ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Timely
Too close to current day technology, especially with the roll out of the Iwatch. I can see the events of this book unfolding.
Published 18 days ago by KB
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging
Amazing book, especially while reading on a Kendell. It feels all to close to a possible reality. Good character development, with a plot that will engage your thoughts even when... Read more
Published 21 days ago by Amazon Customer
2.0 out of 5 stars Promising premise, clumsy execution
I was disappointed by “The Word Exchange.” I picked it up after hearing the author interviewed on NPR -- she came across as very articulate and engaging, and delineated an... Read more
Published 21 days ago by Patrick
4.0 out of 5 stars Tough slog at first, need to read it again, which I think will be time...
This started out as a drag. I almost quit, but something made me keep going. About halfway through, I slowly grokked what was going on and became a fascinating read that needs some... Read more
Published 1 month ago by M. Fred
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More About the Author

Alena Graedon was born in Durham, North Carolina, and is a graduate of Carolina Friends School, Brown University, and Columbia University's School of the Arts. The Word Exchange, her first novel, was completed with the help of fellowships at several artist colonies, including MacDowell, Ucross, and Yaddo, and is being translated into eight languages. It was a New York Times Editors' Choice pick and selected as a best novel of 2014 by Kirkus, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has been published in The New York Times Book Review and The Believer magazine, among other publications. She teaches at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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