Review: The Word Exchange

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

It’s been fairly quiet around here this week. Apologies – I was sick. I don’t get sick often, a tradition I would like to continue, but when I do I cannot be bothered to do anything.

It was therefore surprising that I was able to finish Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange.

The plot of this one is quite complex so I’m going to use the synopsis provided on the publisher’s website so as not to inadvertently ruin anything if you decide to read this:

“Books, libraries, and newspapers have at last become things of the past. Now handheld Memes allow for constant communication and entertainment. They can even anticipate our needs, dialing the doctor before we know we’re sick, or prompting us with words we can’t recall. Yet a few dedicated wordsmiths are still laboring on the final print edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language. But one evening, right before it’s released, Anana Johnson finds that the chief editor—her father—has vanished.

In alternating points of view, Anana and her bookish colleague Bart follow their only clue, the word ALICE, down the proverbial rabbit hole, into subterranean passages, the stacks of the Mercantile Library, and secret meetings of an anti-Meme underground resistance, racing closer to the truth about Anana’s father’s disappearance, and discovering a frightening connection to the growing “word flu” pandemic. “


I think this book is one that gets better the more you sit with it. While I was reading it, I was often frustrated by the vocabulary used, ironically using my own smart-phone to look up words that I didn’t know the meanings of. Reading Bart’s chapters was even worse – he becomes infected with the word flu and whole parts of his speech are in gibberish. Reading it, I wanted to throw the book across the room. But now, I understand what Graedon was trying to accomplish.

But now that I’ve finished the book, I appreciate what Graedon was doing. She was making a point (maybe a little heavy handedly…) – we are losing language. The simple fact that I have to look up words in a book that I’m reading is probably not a good sign. The setting of The Word Exchange isn’t that far into the future – less than 10 years for sure. A lot of the world will be very familiar to readers –people addicted to their phones, letting them do their thinking for them, not even carrying ID anymore because their phones hold all the info they need. So while the idea of a word flu is hyperbolic, it serves to underscore the severity of our own dependence on our devices, the loss of language as we give in to lols, ICYMI, and brb.

The Word Exchange offers a great cure: reading, writing and silence. That’s a message I can totally get behind.

If you liked Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore or Ready Player One (I haven’t read this one but my husband, brother, brother-in-law and librarian friend all rave about it), I suspect you will like The Word Exchange.


23 thoughts on “Review: The Word Exchange

  1. This sounds interesting! I will say I don’t think looking up words while reading is a bad sign at all. It’s a good way to keep learning more words! I am a big fan of having a dictionary (or the internet) handy when reading or writing. Hope you feel better!

    • I’m getting there! Mornings are still terrible.
      It’s a really interesting idea for a novel and really makes you think about uncomfortable possibilities. It’s a flawed book and I’m enjoying the reflection probably more than I enjoyed the actual reading.

  2. I’ve had this on my list for a long time, but like Tanya, I’m not convinced on it. I’m not very tech-savvy, and worry that it would be over my head. The idea of this is scary, though. There could be lots of potential for technology-based thrillers, in my opinion. All the things it can do no blows my mind.

  3. Ha ha, it must of been so interesting reading about getting sick while you were sick. Hope you’re feeling better. I just got over a wicked flu too and haven’t been that sick in ages. I’ve heard so much about this book and thought the premise was very interesting. I liked Ready Player One and have Mr. Penumbra’s on my TBR.

    • You know, I never thought about it but you’re right! No word flu for me, thankfully. Mr Penumbra is better than this one but it reminds me of it in terms of the way technology and books come together. The Word Exchange is strong on theme, weak on execution in my opinion.

  4. I have this book sitting on my shelf, and I started the first few pages, but like Naomi and Tanya, I felt like the hand was heavier than I like it to be. But you’ve intrigued me with the gibberish chapters and where she takes it. I’ll give it another go! -Tania

    • I almost gave up a few times! It was hard to get through sometimes but the concept was such a good one that I felt like I had to finally find out what happens. I do think that it’s more fun to discuss than it was to read though…

  5. I read this book and actually really liked it; but then I’m a sucker for books about words and language. And the thought that they both could be lost so easily was a little scary.

    Hope you’re feeling better!

    • I also love books like that. The issue I think I had with this one was that it was so heavy handed with the foreshadowing and a little too technical for everyone to be able to enjoy.
      And I am feeling much better, thanks!

  6. I always thought that Graedon was trying to prove a point when she used big words in The Word Exchange. Everytime I wanted to google the meaning of a word I gave her a little nod. I really liked this book and I’m glad you did too! Hope you’re feeling better! 🙂

    • I agree and felt the same way. But the same way that this felt almost like an inside joke, eventually it was kind of like “ok, I GET it” you know? Same with all the foreshadowing. But in the end, I liked the message and felt like it got me thinking so…a win?

  7. Valid/relevant point. I read it from a publisher copy too. When did it come out it Canada? I’m always interested in how they release books here and there.

    • The copy I read was the paperback version – I think the hardcover came out in Canada sometime last year? The paperback was out last month.
      I think usually release dates in Canada and the US are fairly close together, probably within a month?

      • That’s good. I know movies can have crazy different release dates. I’ve been waiting for going on two years to see Serena. Read the book in October 2013 and heard the movie was released overseas. It never showed up here. Heard it’s coming out end of this month in US.

  8. I think Graedon intentionally used obscure words to kind of force readers to use their phones, thus proving her point about how reliant we are. I thought it was an interesting technique in a really fun book.

    • I agree, that’s probably exactly what she was doing. But it was kind of constant and felt belaboured rather than like an inside joke. I think if she could have pulled back on that a little, it would have been more effective.

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