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Words, I’ve come to learn, are pulleys through time. Portals into other minds. Without words, what remains? Indecipherable customs. Strange rites. Blighted hearts. Without words, we’re history’s orphans. Our lives and thoughts erased.

The Word Exchange is a good example of why I keep strict restrictions on my DNF pile. In a paper book, I have to read 100 pages before giving up. In an ebook, it’s 25%. I was fed up with this book at the beginning. I was constantly falling asleep while reading it, cursing it for moving too slowly, rolling my eyes at the author’s obvious overuse of a thesaurus… but then at about 24%, it really picked up. I’m glad I didn’t abandon it. I have to say, I was really tempted.

Anana and her father, Doug, work for the NADEL – North American Dictionary of the English Language. Doug is about to publish his life’s work – the third edition – when he abruptly disappears. Meanwhile, people all over the US are becoming infected with a word flu, with symptoms including headaches, nausea, lethargy, and, most alarmingly, aphasia that lingers after all other symptoms have resolved.

“That’s what I heard. Don’t know if it’s true. We haven’t vakkan TV, yin you said.” Had I swakot? I couldn’t recept. Nyanung remember anything at all. She zyk everyone we knew was all right. But she was savend very shaken up.

It seems crazy, but is the word flu linked to the Meme, a widely used device? Can an electronic device even transmit something like the word flu?

In just a few short years the Meme has completely transformed the technological landscape, influencing everything from how we interact to how we’re entertained, how we shop and pay for things to how we receive certain medical treatments, how we’re educated to how we express ourselves creatively. Even how we eat and sleep. Some might say that machines and users have become so intimately entangled that to presume any boundary would be fallacious.

Is Doug ok? Did he leave to protect himself from the word flu, or was he kidnapped? Several people seem to know what happened to him, but nobody will tell Anana anything. Why doesn’t anyone trust her? Is it her former involvement with Max, who now works for Synchronic, the company behind the Meme?

There are many questions in this book. To be honest, I didn’t care about half of them. What was interesting to me was the connection between Anana and Bart, one of Doug’s coworkers. Anana and Bart work to put the pieces together and find Doug, even when they are both suffering from symptoms of the word flu.

rock and roll räk ŋ rol adj: to be great < Bart is so ~ >

I have to admit that I liked Bart a lot more than I liked Anana. And, having a background in linguistics myself, I really enjoyed his little linguistic asides about the history of the English language and the words from other languages that have no English translation:

koi no yokan (Japanese): the ineluctable feeling you have, upon meeting someone for the first time, that eventually the two of you will fall in love

One of the major qualms I had with this book, and I feel that I would have really enjoyed it a lot more if it had been absent, is the use of thesaurus language throughout. I mean, I get it. It’s a novel about language. These people all work for a dictionary. But I refuse to believe that people actually talk like this. Some examples:

• Stumbling, I hurried past the last pillar, the ziggurat of boxes, the men shifting them, who were watching me.
• My anodyne resignation slipped away.
• “Of course not,” he bluffed, pretending to study the rug’s threadbare pattern of crenellations.
• I soon discovered that the wealth on his mother’s side alone made the Dorans seem plunged in penury.

In the book, people have become dependent on the Word Exchange, a pay-per-use dictionary built into their Memes. It provides definitions not only of printed words, but also of spoken words. It allows its users to fake an extensive vocabulary by constantly feeding them definitions, until they have become almost entirely dependent on it to get through a simple conversation. I can only guess that this style of writing was used so that readers would have to use the built-in dictionary in their ereaders, providing a parallel to the Word Exchange that’s become such a problem. (Although, I have to say, there’s quite a difference between the word “paradox” – an example from the book – and “ziggurat” – a word used by Anana.)

Another problem I had, though smaller, is the constant and obvious foreshadowing. Actually, I’m not sure it can even be called foreshadowing when a character literally says things like, “later I would find out that wasn’t true” or “I was later told” or “it turned out much worse than we’d initially imagined.” Anana does this constantly throughout her chapters, and it really pulled me out of the story. If Anana knows that what she’s writing is false, why is she writing it? Why doesn’t she just lay all her cards on the table from the beginning? (The book could have been half the length.)

Overall, The Word Exchange was neither the best nor the worst book I’ve read this year. If you have an interest in language, and what could happen if language disappeared, you’ll probably enjoy this book. If you don’t, well, probably stay away. For me, the most enjoyable parts of this book were the ones based in linguistics, so if that’s not your thing, there’s not much here for you.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for the free copy.

Final rating: ★★★☆