In Brief

This Week’s Hot Reads: April 21, 2014

A dystopic vision of our technological future, a bracing new analysis of capitalistic inequality, and a meditation on history and memoir.

The Word Exchange: A Novel

By Alena Graedon

‘The Word Exchange: A Novel’ by Alena Graedon. 384 pp. Doubleday.

$26.95 hardcover.

In Alana Graedon’s new novel, her first, the agent of dystopia is a next-step smartphone that isn’t simply omnipresent, invasive and indispensible—such devices already exist. No, the Meme, as Gradeon’s invention is called, has the additional bleeding-edge capability of anticipating the user’s every need. Imagine Siri with predictive power. The “word exchange” of the title refers to the Meme’s insidious dictionary function; relying on the exchange has led to endemic, technologically induced aphasia. Navigating this brave new world is the inventively-named Anana, an employee at a soon to be obsolete print dictionary. When her father, the founder of the dictionary, goes missing under mysterious circumstances, The Word Exchange becomes a propulsive, twisty future-noir; in the background of Anana’s investigation is a world that is giving up on language and embracing empty convenience. Graedon comes down firmly on the side of the luddites, but her vision of the future is less alarmist than alarmingly within reach. Her attention to language—and the breakdown of language—invites comparisons to writers like Anthony Burgess and Lewis Carroll. Anana is an Alice figure, and the New York City she lives in a grim, Web 4.0 wonderland.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

By Thomas Piketty

‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ by Thomas Piketty. 696 pp. Belknap Press. $39.95 hardcover.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a dense, data-intensive tome, clocking in at nearly 700 pages with more than 100 graphs and tables. That a book like this is a New York Times best seller speaks to the fact that the publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is, in some circles, an event. Rapturously received in academia and heralded as an instant classic, Piketty’s timely analysis of the dynamics of inequality is primed for a crossover into the mainstream. A professor at the Paris School of Economics, Piketty has looked at centuries of tax archives to formulate a theory of capitalism that is evidence-based and rigorously researched, but also attempts to answer the most basic questions in economic theory. His paradigm-shifting thesis is, at its most basic, that late-stage capitalist economies foster inequality and create an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. These ideas feel intuitive and elegant, and Piketty’s emphasis on data-based analysis lends even his most ambitious claims great credibility. Capital in the Twenty-First Century is already being hailed as a seminal work of economic thought, and with very good reason. Piketty is as arresting and readable a writer as he is a rigorous thinker; the former trait may end up being as responsible for the longevity of Capital in the Twenty-First Century as the latter.

The Sea Inside

By Philip Hoare

‘The Sea Inside’ by Philip Hoare. 384 pp. Melville House. $27.99 hardcover

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Philip Hoare’s new book is neither a memoir nor a travelogue; nor can it rightly be called a history, or a work of philosophy. The Sea Inside is none of these exclusively, but Hoare writes in such a peripatetic and digressive manner that the resulting book manages to encompass every one of these genres. Hoare’s previous book, The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea, was a similarly inventive amalgam of writing on Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, the history of whaling, and Hoare’s own life. The Sea Inside is in the same vein, but Hoare’s scope has widened from merely the cetacean to the entire ocean it swims in. This examination of the sea and its permanent grip on the human imagination allows Hoare’s inquisitive writing to wander from a quasi-biography of T.H. White, the somewhat forgotten author of The Once and Future King, to a cultural history of the raven to a contemplation of blackbird in the author’s own backyard. The Sea Inside offers discoveries in every chapter—Hoare, in addition to being an inherently interesting writer, has a talent for uncovering fascinating historical narratives. This author is a virtuosic storyteller, and The Sea Inside is a welcome opportunity to accompany him on his wanderings—be they geographical, philosophical, or narrative.