Meme /ˈmiːm/ n : An element of a culture or system of behaviour that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non genetic means, esp. imitation.
I’m sure you all have heard of “memes” but did you know that the word is actually shortened from the Ancient Greek word “mimeme”? In modern language, the popularized “meme” refers to a “concept that spreads rapidly from person to person via the Internet.”* In Alena Graedon’s debut novel The Word Exchange, a “meme” refers to a digital device that humans have become over-dependent on, using it for every little thing like making calls, banking, and even to look up words that they’ve forgotten.
The etymology and evolution of language is just one of the aspects this dystopian novel touches on. Set in the future, the Word Exchange is an online dictionary of sorts – users pay money to “download” the definition of words that have slipped their mind and, eventually, users are encouraged to upload their own made up words to another app which can be downloaded from the Word Exchange for a cost as well. The story starts with the disappearance of Doug Johnson, the father of Anana Johnson who is the narrator for most of the novel. The story follows Anana as she tries to track down her father, learning about the secrets of the meme and the Word Exchange along the way.
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. I’ve often pondered the impact new technology has on our lives and how this affects the printed word. With e-readers becoming more prolific and Google becoming more and more powerful, it sometimes really does seem like the meme and the Word Exchange could become a reality. The mystery of Doug’s disappearance carries the novel really well and I found myself very invested in Anana’s quest to find him and the truth about the Word Exchange. Graedon has a knack for writing suspenseful cliffhangers at the end of her chapters and that does a lot to help further the story and keep the reader interested. I could definitely see this being published as a serial (do such things still exist?).
I did have some gripes about the book though. There were a few questions regarding the plot that diverted my attention and took away from the book; for example, at one point, Anana states that her funds were running low after leaving her job to find Doug yet she continues to take taxis throughout the city. How she continued to have enough money throughout the book is eventually explained but it was revealed so late in the story that it had already distracted me enough to make me feel frustrated. Another example, though this one I can admit might be because I was too late to catch on [update April 18th 2014 – Leah has correctly pointed out that the answer to this is mentioned early on in the text; I must have glossed over it when reading. The following frustration is solely my own misreading. Thank you for the correction, Leah!], is the question why we could understand Anana completely throughout the book even when she had the Word Flu yet we couldn’t understand certain words Bart was saying when he was infected. Again, this is explained later in the text but before I figured it out it was a little frustrating as it felt inconsistent.
That said, I found The Word Exchange to be an extremely entertaining read and though I think, or hope, the events are pretty improbable, it still made me question whether we should be so dependent on the internet and external memory.
Verdict: A very captivating book with a strong story and interesting ideas.
Read if: You’ve ever wondered about the future of the printed word, the impact technology has on our lives,and/or want to read something thrilling and dystopian.
*Embarrassingly, my mini dictionary didn’t have the word meme in it, so everything I’ve quoted and found has been from (a) Google and (b) Wikipedia.
Have you read The Word Exchange? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you think you will?