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The Privacy Advisor | Book review: 'Lexicon' has some interesting themes, falls a bit flat in the end Related reading: Book Review: 'Terms and Conditions'




“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Within a few pages of reading “Lexicon,” it becomes apparent author Max Barry has a grudge against that phrase, as his novel puts readers in a world where words can hurt, and even kill.

Barry’s story follows two separate storylines. Teenager Emily Ruff finds herself being recruited from the streets of San Francisco into a secret society of “poets,” a group of people who use language and word combinations to break through a person’s personality type in order to make them do whatever they want.

Meanwhile, an Australian man named Wil finds himself being tracked by mysterious individuals who want to know why he survived an incident where someone used a powerful word in order to command everyone in a small Australian town to kill one another.

Needless to say, these two storylines converge, but the less said about how, the better. There are some genuinely fun twists to be found along the way, some of which come within the first 100 pages. It’s an entertaining way to use a dual narrative to a novel’s advantage.

What also stuck out to me were some of the themes interspersed throughout Barry’s novel. In between each chapter are blog posts and newspaper articles covering the events of the story from different angles. Some of the blog posts come from an anonymous author who rails against some of the topics we cover in this privacy and data protection space we work in; the collection of data to build profiles on people, news corporations curating content to confirm biases, and keeping content private on social media networks when dealing with employers.

One of these chapter breaks even includes a company’s privacy policy, where the organization says it securely stores information using encryption, but also includes a lengthy disclaimer on how it is not liable for any data breaches, while stating it may share data for law enforcement purposes.

Later in the book, it is revealed the society of “poets” gather information on an individual’s personality type through massive amounts of data collection. The organization uses the data to learn about who a person is and what words will make them vulnerable to being compromised.

All of these topics are  interesting in their own right, and the book keeps going back to them as the story progresses. However, they never really factor into the conclusion of the story in any meaningful way. The privacy angles never really become fully developed, with Barry’s points simply grazing the surface of in-depth concerns. We never even find out who wrote the pro-privacy blog posts, so it’s hard to find out why they are there in the first place.

This is probably a criticism that would only come from someone who spends every day surrounded by the privacy industry. I know the majority of the people reading the book probably would not take issue with what Barry is saying, and I’m not either. I wish there was just a little something extra outside of the obvious railing against anti-privacy practices.

Aside from that, the novel was deeply engrossing, and I found myself tearing through pages to see how the different storylines merged. While the book was around 400 pages long, I found myself a bit underwhelmed by its ending. “Lexicon” takes its time building up its world and protagonists, but rushes through the final 30 pages or so hit the finish line. It would have been nicer to delve into some of the final actions of the characters, but the epilogue comes as more questions beg to be answered.

Overall, I would recommend “Lexicon” to anyone seeking a well-crafted mystery, and who has an interest in the effect of language. If you are a seasoned privacy professional, however, you will find yourself going through some well-worn material.


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