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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Cranky about crosswords

Am I going to like the new documentary about crossword puzzle enthusiasts, Wordplay? More importantly, is the movie going to change my opinion of Yankees pitcher and crossword enthusiast Mike Mussina?

Last year, I had plans to be a freelance crossword constructor until it was not so gently suggested to me that my social life was suffering because of it. Jack McCoy and I spent many evenings sketching out grids and using up gum erasers, but I only finished constructing three or four Wednesday-level puzzles. I can't even find them now. Oh well.

The weird thing about this profile of Will Shortz in New York magazine is the writer's inexplicable decision to frame the story as a (non-existent) problem piece: Sudoku has eclipsed the crossword puzzle in popularity, just as a movie about crossword puzzles is about to be released! Sudoku is, according to the writer, "the ultimate puzzle for a postliterate world."
Less charitably, one could regard Sudoku as the lowest common denominator--a puzzle for a nation whose citizens no longer presume to have any culture in common. "I don’t want to call it a dumbing down of society," Abby Taylor, Dell’s editor-in-chief, says delicately, but she has noticed that nonlanguage puzzles like Sudoku--or nondemanding ones like word searches--have been steadily increasing in sales, while sales of difficult crosswords remain flat.

I'm not surprised that Sudoku is more popular than the crossword, but I'm not troubled by the trend, either. I'm all for people doing logic puzzles on the subway. Spare me the claims about a decline in civilization--that's a lazy narrative conceit, not a real problem.

I'm not convinced that doing the crossword is a marker of cultural sophistication, either. You get good at doing the crossword by learning how to recognize patterns. There was a Henrik Ibsen-themed puzzle a month or two ago in the Times, but figuring out the themed answers didn't have much to do with having read Ibsen. A frequent solver would have recognized the clues as ones that appear often in the Times because they contain lots of vowels. It's delightful to figure out clues such as MRPEANUT and GIJOE, but it's a big jump in logic to say that puzzle-solving skill has moral benefits:
This is the documentary’s precise conceit-—that through the crossword we can see the spirit of an entire class of people, the nation’s highbrows, the wonks who cherish vocabulary and wit, prize precision and accuracy, and who believe it is a moral good to read widely in the culture.

Let's just say this point may be overstated. If Mike Mussina can do the crossword in the Yankees dugout, can we really call them moral? Also, do all brainy leisure activities have to have a larger cultural good?

In his book about crossword enthusiasm, Crossworlds, Marc Romano tried out a similar thesis: "Solving puzzles is an active step you can take to make yourself a better, more informed, fairer, and more tolerant person." The best parts of that book, though, are the profiles of Shortz and frequent Friday constructor Brendan Emmett Quigley. The profiles are funny and natural, and the writing works best when the author intrudes the least into the story. The less interesting parts of the book are the attempts to prove the moral improvement thesis and when he undercuts his moral improvement thesis by going on and on about his troubles with women and how he likes to read Gravity's Rainbow at bars (those two problems may be linked).

So those are a few reasons why I'm ambivalent about this new crossword movie: maybe I'd rather sit at home with my graph paper and Jack McCoy's moral self-righteousness than listen to others try to graft a moral onto my precious grids. Jon Stewart's crossword enthusiasm may be the main reason I'll go see it, as I can't imagine him being too high-minded about it.


Blogger Leslie Linevsky on Tue Jun 13, 08:36:00 PM:
When I give the present to my oldest daughter she replies “everyone in class already knows how to play” and she grabs the book and begins to literally amaze me with her logic and skill. Parents … take heed … this is 10 thousand times better for your kids to get hooked on than Game boys and iPods.

I also bought a newer game called Kakuro. Like Sudoku, Kakuro is a grid puzzle using numbers. Unlike Sudoku, solving requires actually adding and subtracting. Kakuro is a logic puzzle in which the object is to narrow down the possibilities for each square until you find the one that is correct. It was introduced in Japan more than twenty years ago, but only in 2005 it was introduced in Britain, which is now featured in several best-selling books.
Blogger Meg Lyman on Wed Jun 14, 10:18:00 AM:
Very nice blog, Alice. I definately agree that completing crosswords does not make one a better or smarter person. In order to complete them you must do have two things not associated with either: cultural knowledge and being aware of conventions of crosswords. I, indeed, wish had both of those in greater quantity, because I find completing crosswords much more enjoyable and fullfilling than Sudoku. Oh well.