"The Word Exchange" - In Conversation with Alena Graedon

This week I had the opportunity to speak with Alena Graedon, author of The Word Exchange (Doubleday, 2014), one of my favorite books of 2014. The book is set in a future where books have been replaced by digital devices known as Memes, through which the "word flu," a mysterious virus that robs it's victims of the basic ability to communicate with one another, is spread. Read on to see what she had to say about the differences between reading off of a screen versus on paper, e-readers and printed books, e-bookstores versus brick-and-mortar locations, the potential dangers of moving all of our records into the digital sphere, censorship and the Internet, corporate and consumer responsibility and much more.

Alena Graedon (Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan)

Andrew DeCanniere (AD): As someone who speaks another language [Hungarian], what I found particularly interesting in your book is this notion of the people who seem to really value language, who really seem to appreciate it, are the ones who, while not immune by any means, are more protected from this virus [the ‘Word Flu’] that is going around. Since nowadays we are surrounded by so much communication, some of it meaningful and some of it perhaps not so much, do you think we may be entering an era where people may have more of a different view of language, kind of in the way that Synchronic saw it simply as a commodity? Where, perhaps, they may not value it as much or don’t see as much of a distinction between 'meaningful' communication versus not-so-meaningful communication?

Alena Graedon (AG): That’s a great question. I think the fact is that we just have to use powers of discernment in our day-to-day life so much more. I was just reading a really interesting article in Wired about paper as the potential progressive medium of the future for communication. It was a little tongue-in-cheek, but it was also talking about some studies that have been done recently that show that even just the act of scrolling down a screen is a little distracting to our brains. Even just that little bit of distraction takes away some of our attention from absorbing what we’re reading, so that it doesn’t transfer as easily from short to long-term memory. That’s part of the reason that we have a little more trouble remembering things that we read on screens than remembering things that we read on paper. When you’re reading something on paper, you’re getting all sorts of other cues. You’re getting visual cues about how the words are arranged on the page, as well as sensory cues. You turn the page and sort of have a sense of where something is in relation to other things. There’s just more information for your brain to use to sort of store what it is taking in, and I think that the same is sort of true in the sense of having to make even these tiny, subconscious decisions about what to pay attention to, what to tune out, what is meaningful and what is meaningless — or less meaningful to us, anyway. I think that, because of that, for all of us, we’re just so bombarded that it’s difficult for us to then sort through this information. I don’t even know that I think it’s that we value language less, it’s just that we’re being asked to assess so much more. I think that for all of us one of the outcomes of that is that it’s exhausting, in a certain sense. I mean literally and physically, and it becomes more difficult for us to pay attention to the things that we want to pay attention to.

AD: Yeah. I think I saw that article. It’s the one that you posted on your Facebook page.

AG: Yeah. Somebody sent it to me and I read it and was like ‘Yes! This is amazing! And I’m only slightly embarrassed that I’m reading it on a screen.’

AD: It’s something that I’ve definitely noticed, to a certain extent as well. There’s this different sort of way of interacting with e-books versus physical copies and then there even are different ways of interacting with actual bookstores versus the bookstore on your e-reader, which is actually related to your book as well, since it is set in this post-bookstore world. When you go into a physical bookstore, I think that you have this sort of ability and inclination to browse. You have the chance to discover other authors, these other works that you may not have initially known about or been drawn to. When you log onto an e-bookstore, by contrast, even though it too is theoretically set up for the customer to browse around, it seems to me that, quite often, you already know what you want, you know what you’re looking for, you download it and that’s that. There’s not that same sort of element of browsing and discovery that exists when you walk into a physical bookstore.

AG: Exactly, and I think that’s interesting because I was thinking about this the other day. Somebody asked me a question after a reading, about what I think is potentially lost. I think that one of the things that I love about the Internet is the same thing that I love about an e-reader, which is that everything is made available to you. You have access to absolutely everything at anytime and anyplace. That’s also one of the things that I think is a little bittersweet about it, because back before I had access to the Internet, when I was a lot younger, and I was reading something, I would have questions that I couldn’t immediately answer. They would lead me to other questions, and maybe serendipitous associations that I wouldn’t normally have. In the process of reading something, it leads you to something else, just in your own mind, and in some ways that’s sort of analogous to that experience you were describing of serendipity, of being in the bookstore and seeing things that you weren’t anticipating.

Likewise, that same experience is duplicated by flipping through a paper dictionary, where you see entries to words that you weren’t expecting to see. There’s just a lot more surprise, and I think that it’s remarkable. Sometimes you can have those same experiences on the Internet. I go on YouTube and I’ll watch one video and then, all of a sudden, I’m watching all of this other stuff that I never sort of anticipated seeing. I think that it’s also true that so much of our interaction with information, and with books in particular, is really directed toward where our interest is sort of already leading us. It’s sort of predetermined in a way. At least for me that’s something that I’ve noticed.

AD: Yeah, I think that there certainly are genres that you find yourself sticking to, or that you keep returning to quite often, anyway. So I think that it’s kind of nice to have that opportunity to go outside of your ‘comfort zone,’ as it were.

AG: At the same time, though, there is something incredibly appealing about this idea of being able to carry around an infinite library, which you can do with an e-reader. There’s something so lovely about that.

AD: I just recently received an e-reader, as a gift, and I do use it, but it’s just that after owning one I’d noticed these kinds of differences in the ways one might interact with it versus a book and with an e-bookstore versus a so-called ‘brick-and-mortar’ bookstore, or I should say it’s become a bit more pronounced.

AG: Yeah, and I have one, too. I don’t use it that often, but I definitely do use it. For me it hasn’t replaced reading on paper, but I read some things on an e-reader, some things on paper and some things on both. It’s just a different way of interacting with text, and I think that, for me, reading is such a dialectical experience. The way that I process the world is through writing. That’s how I become aware of what I’m thinking. Through language, writing and speaking, but definitely through writing. So I like to be able to write notes in the margins of books, and then discover books that friends or family of mine have read and see their observations. I really like that sort of alluvial experience, where the book becomes a palimpsest in a certain way. That’s much harder on an e-reader, but there are certain things that I love being able to consume on an e-reader and being able to take it with me everywhere I go, and also just the capacity to search for text is really remarkable, too.

AD: Well, I’m looking at my huge motivation for having one right now. I’m sitting across from my bookcase here, looking at it, and the top shelf of the bookcase is just sagging from holding all of these books. So the e-reader certainly helps alleviate some storage issues, but so many of the books I buy — the vast majority, really — are physical copies rather than e-books.

AG: Right. At a certain point it becomes an issue of necessity and physical space. I think for me I was really interested in this idea of if we transfer everything over into the digital sphere, and something were to go wrong, what would the ramifications be? In part because I am really interested in this idea of once physical records of something no longer exist, then obviously it does become so much easier for someone who wants to manipulate a narrative, make inconvenient facts disappear, or appear in a different form to manipulate that data, if it exists only digitally.

AD: I guess it certainly could open you up to revisionist history, etc., etc.

AG: Exactly. And of course, in my book, one of the major ramifications is this language virus. I also hoped to sort of evoke some of these other connotations of what it means for language to be manipulated or transformed. One of the interesting reviews that I just read in Singapore's Straits Times over the weekend, and the author of the review made this observation that I hadn’t really thought about regarding censorship. They said that if things are redacted from a physical record, then you can see that things have been cut out of that document, or blacked out or that they’ve been whited out. On the Internet, you can’t see the evidence of tampering nearly as well. I just thought that was interesting, because I lived in China for a little while, and we were all very aware that censorship is something that happens. I think that’s a conversation that’s much more on the surface of day-to-day life there than it is here, where censorship also happens all the time, but it’s not talked about as much. I just thought that was really interesting, because it took somebody living in a part of the world where censorship may be more a part of day-to-day reality — or at least where censorship is discussed more openly — to make that interesting observation of the different forms it can take.

AD: Yeah. As you say, I think censorship certainly goes on, to a certain extent, here as well, but particularly in the case of some other regimes abroad who would love nothing more than the opportunity to ‘commandeer’ the narrative — if you want to put it that way — where the west may be concerned, or whatever else it may be, so that it suits their ends. It can definitely be much more insidious that way, when censorship is done on the Internet instead of in print.

AG: I think that’s absolutely right. When I was living in China for the first time, I was 17-years-old, and I was living with a host family in Beijing for one semester. That’s when I really started thinking about language, because I was living abroad and learning a new language really intensively for the first time. I studied French when I was growing up, but that was a really different kind of language learning experience. I really started thinking about the ways that language connects us across space and time, and connecting past and future generations, and what it might mean if those ties were cut. I was thinking about those things especially because that happened to be when e-mail was taking off for the first time, and I was so grateful to have this medium to connect myself to my family and friends back home so much more easily than through letters that would have taken three weeks to arrive. At the same time, I also was made really aware of some of the vulnerabilities and limitations of digital media right from the very beginning of my use of it, because on the one hand the digital infrastructure could sometimes have problems. I would write a long e-mail and it would just vanish into thin air after I pressed ‘send.’ From the other side, too, we were all very aware that there were certain websites we couldn’t access, that sometimes they would disappear overnight. Sometimes we’d be able to access a news story, but then we’d go and try to check it later and it would be gone. So, we also knew that everything could at least potentially be censored or erased. I think that from the very beginning that affected my own sort of relationship to digital media, because I had some degree of weariness about it, and it’s just been really interesting to revisit some of those feelings here in the U.S. after the NSA revelation.

AD: Yeah. It’s definitely been more of a topic of conversation recently. I’ll say that.

AG: And it’s true that everything we do can be monitored. That’s always been true. Large institutions that want to know what we’re reading and who we’re talking to and even what we’re saying can do that. They’ve had that technology for a long time, but it does make it a lot easier to keep track of us. Not just for government organizations, but also for corporations and for other institutions, if all of our communication is happening through the digital sphere.

AD: Tell me about it. Here in the Chicago area we just recently switched from an old farecard system [Chicago Card Plus] to a new one [Ventra], and even with something like that, people have taken notice that the system provides some more specifics than the old system provided, like not only when you took a bus or a train, but which bus or train route you took. Based on some of the comments that I had seen on some transit message boards, there were a number of people pretty upset by that, even though I should say that’s pretty standard today. That’s hardly unique to our new farecard system or our transit system.

The Word Exchange (Doubleday, 2014)

AG: I think you’re right. I also think that all of these things have happened incrementally, over time. I think that maybe my parents or grandparents would have been really wary of having their bus route mapped, or for instance having so many images of us everywhere that we go, because there are so many cameras recording everything that we do in virtually every public space, and even in some private spaces, too, like universities. I think that because it happened gradually, it’s something that a handful of people — who I think were sort of considered ‘on the fringe’ — were concerned about, but I think that now we’re all sort of becoming more aware of the ways in which our private lives are becoming more and more public, more trackable and traceable, and that’s made all of us a little bit more uncomfortable — or it’s made many more people uncomfortable.

That’s sort of one of the things that I was trying to address with the book, this idea of downloading language from a large, controlling language database seems a little far-fetched. Yet, it’s on the continuum of things that we have already experienced, in terms of some resource that we regularly rely on that we very gradually relinquish control over, or some basic functionalities that we once thought of as really essential to humanity even. Over time, we’ve let devices take over more and more of those things. I’m certainly just as guilty of that as anyone. I let my iPhone tell me where to go with a map. If I’m driving in a car, I just have it dictate directions to me. Of course, it keeps all of my phone numbers, and all of my appointments, and my best friends’ birthdays and things like that, but it’s not so hard to imagine relinquishing even more. So, what I was doing was taking this idea to a sort of logical extreme and doing a thought experiment. I’m not actually, in some sense, really, fundamentally worried about the way in which our relationship to language and communication is changing, but I did want to enlarge the conversation we’ve been having in recent years as a culture, about the ways in which technology has augmented our reality, in the way that it maybe has intruded into our reality, and the way that it is changing our relationship to ourselves and our own thoughts, to our thinking process, as well as to each other, in the ways that we interact with each other when everything is mediated through a screen.

AD: In the book, it seems like they are ready, willing and able to embrace their devices, whether it is the Nautilus or other ‘older’ technologies, even though it is through some of these devices [Memes] that the virus spreads. Obviously, though more and more people lose the ability to communicate, it seems as though very few individuals actually end up rejecting their device in favor of ‘older’ technology like cell phones. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they still seem to see these devices, and the embrace of those devices, as ‘progress,’ even as they are losing the ability to communicate with one another. Since it’s new, it’s seen as ‘progress,’ which is kind of counterintuitive, and it’s precisely this that leads me to my next question. Do you think that we, as consumers, have responsibilities before we embrace new technologies and what are they?

AG: I was actually going to talk about that exact thing. Of course there are some ways in which this book embraces some of the classic tropes of stories, like the idea of technology that is released a little too soon, without proper regulation — sort of like the classic Jurrasic Park story, perhaps — and we see lots of evidence in the real world. For one thing, people smoked for years and years before doctors would concede that there was possibly a link between smoking and cancer. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that they took so many years to make the connection. More recent examples include drugs — like drugs that were developed for Diabetes maybe have other horrible side-effects that are life-threatening, and it takes years for them to be pulled from the market. So, unfortunately it’s an idea that I think we’ve become all too familiar with, but then of course there is a danger, too of being too conservative and not embracing new technologies, not taking the risk to try a new therapy that might potentially save lives. You sort of have to balance those anxieties about harm against the possible benefits to society, but I do think that we’re so quick to rush and embrace the newest thing that we don’t first stop and consider the possible negative fallout of those new inventions.

AD: And the flip side of this is that, in your book, once they were aware of the issues surrounding their devices, Synchronic seemed to be eager in minimizing them or hiding the ill effects altogether. They wanted to brush it off as a mere rumor, dispel the whole thing, which brings me to my next question. Do you think that corporations have a responsibility to society, and what is that responsibility?

AG: I think that they of course do, but I also think that we have, unfortunately, become very familiar with the idea that companies are afraid of litigation. They’re afraid of scandal. I can’t remember which car company it is, but I think it was GM that had this scandal where their CEO or the head of GM was being questioned about this ignition problem that they knew about for years — for a decade, I think — even as people were dying because of these faulty ignitions. They were more afraid to admit wrongdoing because they were afraid of the possible lawsuits, and I think that’s one example among many. Of course I think there should be more corporate responsibility when corporations know that something they’re doing is potentially harmful to the public health, but I think that it just doesn’t always happen that way, unfortunately. I think that sometimes they feel that it is less harmful to their bottom line if they try to defer some of these issues as much as possible and, if possible, to get out of them altogether. In that sense, Synchronic is a slight exaggeration of what a nefarious corporation might look like, but it might not be as much of an exaggeration as we think.

AD: And this is particularly relevant in a day and age when many — particularly some politicians and those within these large corporations — argue that corporations should have rights. And they should. I don’t argue that they shouldn’t have any rights, but I do argue that corporations should not have more rights than people.

AG: Yeah. I think that you and I are on the same page.

AD: Who would you say are some of your influences as a writer?

AG: I read all kinds of things, and I think that maybe that is the reason that my book has been described as a ‘genre mash-up.’ I read all different genres growing up. Sci-fi and fantasy formed my earliest literary consciousness. I read George Orwell, Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle and Diana Wynne Jones. Then, when I got older, I sort of branched out and started reading other things. Mystery novels, Dashiell Hammett and pulpier things. Then, as I became aware of them, reading writers from the part of the country where I grew up. Southern writers. Reading things in translation and reading poetry and essay collections, fiction and short stories. It all goes in the stew. Some of my favorite writers are writers who sort of evade typical genre distinctions from someone as distinctive Jorge Luis Borges to David Foster Wallace to Margaret Atwood. Right now I’m writing short stories, so I’ve been reading short stories. I’ve been reading Alice Munro’s stories again. I’ve been reading Karen Russell’s stories. I just read Rajesh Parameswaran’s wonderful short story collection called I am an Executioner. Right now I’m reading a collection by Canadian author Doretta Lau called How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? I always find it’s really helpful to read what you’re trying to write.

AD: There’s a pretty diverse array, there.

AG: For sure. I actually went to a really small, progressive school without grades, and we called teachers by their first names and there was certainly nothing as structured as a ‘core curriculum.’ There were some books that we all read together, but there was so much encouragement to read what you wanted to read and follow your interests in that way. Then again, when I went on to university, it was really similar. So, I think that as a result I read things that I was passionately interested in. I forgot to mention Nabokov, who was maybe one of my very favorites. I could go on for hours about all of my favorite writers, because I’m a reader before anything. That’s what made me want to try to write my own story, because I just grew up with a huge love of reading.

AD: Sounds very familiar. I don’t think that I could possibly pick one or five or even ten of my favorite authors and just stop there.  Often, when somebody asks — if someone asks me for recommendations — it’s sort of the stuff that’s been on my mind lately, which often tends to be some of the stuff that I’ve read more recently and really, really loved.

AG: Exactly. That’s how I tend to do it, too, because if I were only to pick friends whose writing I love and admire, even that would take half-an-hour, probably. Right now I’m in this little room at my publisher’s office, and I’m looking at the Every Man’s Library collection of Ray Bradbury stories. He’s certainly another writer who’s informed my own literary consciousness.

AD: Since I thought that it is relevant to the book, one other thing I wanted to kind of touch on is something that ties into the whole e-Book and e-reader thing in a way. Your book is set in this kind of post-bookstore world, and I’ve noticed that in my area a number of these large chain bookstores have closed. Borders in nearby Wilmette, for instance, closed about a couple of years ago or so. Fortunately, I’ve also noticed there seems to be this kind of resurgence of independents. It kind of struck me as funny, because years back when these large, chain bookstores first really started to spring up, they forced a lot of the smaller, independent stores out. It’s kind of like we’ve maybe come full circle.

AG: It’s been interesting to see. I think that now, in some parts of the country, we’re seeing a reverse trend, which may also be tied to this DIY culture and this idea of wanting to embrace handmade things and small craftsmen and artisans. There was some piece in The New York Times recently about bookstores that are closing in Manhattan, and that’s happening for sure, but then it was followed up with another article about independent bookstores that are thriving. Certainly in the neighborhood that I live in, in Brooklyn, my neighborhood bookstore is called Greenlight and it is doing wonderfully well. That’s been really heartening to see, because it’s only been around for a few years. I think the thing is that of course my book does not describe an inevitable reality — or an inevitable outcome — I think that there are some ways in which I have seen, over the course of writing it, that some things have come to pass. That’s been a little alarming in terms of bookstores being closed or even libraries being threatened. There’s a public campaign here to save parts of the main branch of the New York Public Library. We have gotten more integrated with our devices in certain ways. I also do think books are here to stay, and I think that people will always read them, and some people probably will always read books on paper. I think that bookstores will be around for a long time, so I’ve been really interested to watch that same trend you were describing. I’ve also been really heartened to see how some independents have sort of managed to not only hold on, but to thrive.

AD: It seems like it’s coming full circle, in a way. It’s just something that kind of caught my attention. It just struck me as interesting, because for many years people who really cared about and valued independent bookstores took notice of these large corporations that were taking over and were often pricing the independents out. Now we’ve had Borders go away, and while there still is Barnes & Noble and there is Amazon, you now also have these smaller places that are starting to pop up here and there again, perhaps to fill in the gap where the large chain store has closed. Then, of course, you also have some mainstays of their communities that have been around for years that have somehow managed to survive, and, as you say, even thrive, which is great.

AG: Exactly. I mean I have been really interested in the way in which digital media has changed not just industries, because there are now these large companies that sort of consolidate one type of holding — whether it’s music or film or books or news or even judicial records — but it’s also changed the way that we consume those things. Of course, once someone has a corner not just on a product, but on the supply lines, that does really give them an inordinate amount of power. So again, I sort of wanted to take that same model as applied to things we all use and consume everyday, and apply it to something like language. It’s this slightly more fantastical idea, and yet, at the same time, it isn’t. It’s something that really defines us as humans. A lot of people think that language is the most defining human trait — the use of language — and I was sort of interested in this idea of how we’re changing as humans with the integration of ourselves and our technology. I thought that one interesting lens for examining that would be the way that we use and interact with language.



Alena Graedon was born in Durham, NC, and is a graduate of Carolina Friends School, Brown University, and Columbia University’s MFA program. She was Manager of Membership and Literary Awards at the PEN American Center before leaving to finish The Word Exchange, her first novel, with the help of fellowships at several artist colonies. Her writing has been translated into nine languages. She lives in Brooklyn.

You can find out more about Alena and The Word Exchange via the Random House website and through her Facebook page.





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