These words are written on a bright Saturday morning in the spring of 2014, a morning all the brighter because I have just successfully completed a wickedly difficult crossword puzzle dreamed up by Evan Birnholz for the New York Times. Devotees of that newspaper’s puzzles know well that each week’s progression begins with the big, medium-hard Sunday one, then an easy one on Monday, and thereafter marches inexorably to the Saturday toughie. It’s my favorite puzzle of the week, because it’s almost always a challenge and a struggle and completing it without help from Google is a notable if not heroic achievement.
I have been doing crossword puzzles and their next-of-kin, double crostics, for more than six decades, and the pleasure they give me has yet to fade. I start each day with one and always look forward to Sunday, when I have not merely the Times puzzle but the absolutely terrific and witty one constructed each week by Merl Reagle for The Washington Post Magazine. I do not pretend to be an ace solver and would not dream of entering the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held each year in Connecticut, participation in which would be for me abject humiliation. But I am enough of a starry-eyed fan that when, more than 50 years ago, I reported for work in the Sunday Department of the New York Times, I was speechless in awe to find myself only a few desks away from Margaret Farrar, that newspaper’s puzzle editor and, as Alan Connor puts it in this amusing and informative little book, “the mother of the modern crossword.” Elsewhere he writes:
“In 1926 Margaret Petherbridge had taken the name Farrar following her marriage to John C. Farrar, founder of [the] publishing giant Farrar, Straus and Giroux. As Margaret Farrar, she tidied up the messy conventions of crosswording: She may have become involved with puzzling by chance, but she thought deeply and effectively about what made one crossword better than another. . . . Margaret Farrar’s parameters for an aesthetically pleasing grid are symmetry, a minimum letter-count of three in answers, and ‘all-over interlock’ — in layman’s speak, the grid does not have separate sections and the solver can travel from any part of it to another.”
She was an exceptionally nice person (she died in June 1984, aged 87) who told Reagle, when he was all of 16 years old, “that ‘crosswords are entertainment,’ advising him to avoid ‘things like death, disease, war and taxes — the subway solver gets enough of that in the rest of the paper.’ ” True enough, but more and more improbable words have been creeping into puzzles as they, like the rest of society, let it all hang out. Why, in the aforementioned puzzle by Evan Birnholz, the answer for “Controversial thing to play” turned out to be “race card” — hardly something one would have expected to find in a newspaper puzzle only a few years ago. Crosswords seem to be drawing “a younger audience . . . one that [is] more comfortable with modern colloquialisms and pop culture than with arcane geographical and historical references.” Indeed, some of the best puzzle constructors today are astonishingly young — some are still in their teens! — and the content of their puzzles reflects their interests and experiences, as indeed one would expect it to.
Connor notes that Eugene T. Maleska, puzzle editor of the New York Times in the 1980s, had “a reputation for fastidiousness and fustiness,” a reputation that was thoroughly deserved; one critic accused him of “running crosswords best suited to ‘the residents of a retirement home for university dons.’ ” I hope that this can never be said of my own taste in puzzles, but I do confess to being somewhat nonplussed by the profusion of terms from hip-hop, of cast members of television shows I have never seen, of quotations from pop songs post-1975 and other adornments of the splendid world we now inhabit. Will Shortz, who took over the puzzle editorship at the Times two decades ago, has presided over much of this change, trying — so at least it seems from afar — to steer the crossword puzzle into an altered world while still maintaining its traditional form. Shortz was the central figure in “Wordplay” (2006), the entertaining documentary film that made him something of a star, albeit in a rather minuscule firmament.
The first crossword was published in the New York World in December 1913, designed by a journalist named Arthur Wynne; you wouldn’t recognize it as a crossword today, so much did Farrar alter and improve upon the rather awkward original. The puzzles didn’t really find a following until the new publishing firm of Simon & Schuster published the first puzzle book in 1924, inaugurating what “became the longest continuously published book series.” You can now find the successors to that book in airports and train stations around the world. But it was when newspapers overcame their hesitation about the puzzles and established them as regular features that they really took off. Indeed, Connor speculates that puzzles may be helping keep print newspapers afloat today, as readers flee to the Internet.
So, too, do the puzzles. Inexplicably, Connor writes that “if the experience of home printing ever becomes less horrific than it is now, [we] may be printing off a daily puzzle rather than buying it from a kiosk.” What kind of printer does this guy have? Every morning during my annual three- or four-month sojourn to Peru, I print the puzzle — two or more on Sunday! — on my trusty Canon, an experience approximately as “horrific” as watching the Peruvian sun set over the Pacific. Connor is right, through, that “the challenge for crossword constructors and editors is to make wordplay work in the devices that are replacing print.” It is entirely possible that the puzzles my grandchildren attempt to solve when they are bitten by the bug, as I hope they will be, will look nothing like the ones I now work every day, but presumably the basic elements of wordplay and its challenges will remain.
Connor provides a quick tour d’horizon of puzzles as they have been and are now, though obviously he is on shakier ground when trying to imagine what they will be like in the future. He writes with tongue somewhat in cheek about “crossword English,” which at times consists of words that appear “more often in a crossword than in real life.” He lists “ten of the English language’s most crosswordy words,” to wit: ALEE, ARGO, ASEA, EMU, ERATO, IAMBI, PSST, SMEE, SOHO and STYE. What faithful old friends they are, and the next time you use one of them in normal conversation, please do let me know.
A couple of mild caveats about what is otherwise a good book. Connor is English, and the book has a decided British slant. This review has emphasized the American aspects of the puzzle, but Connor goes on at some length about the cryptic puzzles so beloved of British solvers. He does acknowledge that “the clues in a British crossword [can] appear to be the kind of gobbledegook from which only a masochist could derive the slightest pleasure,” but he insists that anyone can solve a British cryptic puzzle if only she or he will just try. Believe me, I have tried, and I can’t, and I won’t try again. Life is too short.
It is perhaps because he is British that he describes Merl Reagle as “one of the NYT’s most playful and imaginative constructors.” That was true some years ago, but if you want to do one of his wonderful puzzles you’ll have to buy the Sunday Washington Post, as he now belongs here, not in the Times. In fact, come to think of it, I’m writing this on a Saturday, the Post pre-print has arrived, so I’ll go wrestle with Reagle right now.
THE CROSSWORD CENTURY
100 Years of Witty Wordplay, Ingenious Puzzles, and Linguistic Mischief
By Alan Connor
Gotham. 191 pp. $24