Celebrating a love of words and a first novel

May. 03, 2014 @ 10:52 AM

In the 1990s, Alena Graedon was growing up in Durham and Chapel Hill, learning to write and think at the Carolina Friends School.

She lives in Brooklyn now. But she came back last week to visit the school, read from her debut novel, “The Word Exchange,” and to thank the school and her teachers for their guidance and inspiration.
“I was so encouraged to follow my dreams,” she siad. “What was wonderful about the Friends School was that it required us to find self-direction. Maybe from the outside it looks like a free-for-all. But you have to find your motivation from inside to get your work done, to get your projects done. And that's an important lesson for any kid, not just for one who wants to be a writer.”
Although Graedon’s new book has been out for only a few weeks, it has already gained national attention. Kirkus Reviews described it as “a wildly ambitious, darkly intellectual and inventive thriller about the intersection of language, technology and meaning.”
She sets her book a few years in the future. The iPhone-like devices, called Memes, are much more powerful that today’s models. Connected to their owner’s body and brain, they can anticipate what is needed or desired. A Meme will call for a taxi before you know you need one. And it will order a stronger drink than you would have ordered because it determines that is what you need.
As the Memes take over their lives and communications, people begin to lose their language skills. Reading and writing abilities diminish. In this environment, Synchronic, the business that sells Memes (think Apple, Google, Facebook combined) develops a new service, called the Word Exchange, to help people find the words they have forgotten. There is a small charge. Only 2 cents a word, but the price will increase when the Word Exchange gains a monopoly in words. It is seeking to put all dictionaries and similar resources out of business, and it is creating its own stable of new words.
It is all beautifully complicated. Into this mix Graedon throws family crises, love stories, danger, violence and a deadly disease. Word Flu is a combination of ordinary communicable diseases and computer viruses, and it sweeps through the masses of those who use Memes.
Can the world be saved from those who would deprive us of words? Can the Word Flu be brought under control?
Graedon would tell you to read the book to find out.
But here is a clue. She loves words.
That love of words, reading and writing is a Graedon family tradition. Her grandfather, who lived “down the street,” was a publisher’s representative and later a used-book dealer.
“His house was full of books,” Graedon says. “And in my house books were the most sacred objects. Reading was one of the most important things we all did as a family.”
Her parents, Joe and Terry Graedon, are prolific writers and book lovers.
“My brother and I both went on to work in bookstores. I worked at Nice Price Books in Carrboro. He still works at the Regulator in Durham.”
Whether her love of words determines the ending of her book, Alena Graedon’s talented storytelling and writing will keep you involved until the last page.

Alena Graedon’s interview on WCHL’s “Who’s Talking” is available at http://chapelboro.com/category/wchl/lifestyle-weekly/whos-talking/.

D.G. Martin’s regular weekly column appears on The Herald-Sun’s editorial page on Wednesdays and on line at http://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/opinioncolumnists/martin. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.