From Square One

A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords

by Dean Olsher

From Square One

Hardcover, 186 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $24 | purchase

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Book Summary

The former public radio personality from The Next Big Thing explores the history and enduring popularity of crossword puzzles, evaluating a cultural possibility that society's fascination with puzzles reflects a metaphorical drive to fill psychological gaps.

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From Square One

Magnificent Obsession

There is no other word for it. I get defensive when people dismiss the crossword as a mere pastime or, worse, a form of escapism. To my mind, they just don't get it.

Alfred Hitchcock didn't get it. He told François Truffaut, "I don't really approve of whodunits because they're rather like a jigsaw or a crossword puzzle. No emotion. You simply wait to find out who committed the murder."

Here, Hitchcock fell prey to a false dichotomy, and it's a common one: that thinking and feeling are an either/or proposition. In fact they are inextricable. Encountering a powerful idea can be a deeply moving experience. Anyone who believes that cerebral and emotional satisfaction are at odds with each other need only open any book by Vladimir Nabokov, who, as it happens, created the world's first known Russian-language crossword puzzles while exiled in Berlin during the 1920s.

Perhaps Hitchcock saw only suspense, terror, and imminent jeopardy as emotions. It is true that you will find none of these states of being in the crossword, unless you count yourself among the throngs who have decided they can't solve puzzles and are therefore scared to death of them.

Exhilaration is an emotion. So is serenity. For those native to the world of the puzzle, entering a crossword is like stepping into the clean white cube of an art gallery or into a church or a Japanese rock garden. There are days when solving puzzles feels like a practice, the next best thing to seated meditation. When beautifully executed, a crossword can bring about the same response as a work of art.

It is more honest, though, to think of crosswords as a habit, like smoking. It's just something to do, every day, because it's there. When finished with a puzzle, I don't pump my fists in triumph or congratulate myself for my perseverance. I solve crosswords because they bring on a feeling of emptiness, and paradoxically, that feeling seems to fill a hole deep inside. It's not a release, it's not a flushing out, although both those terms grasp at some aspect of it. Norman Mailer said that for him, solving the crossword every day was like combing his brain. This simile is strong because it has nothing to do with mental fitness. It's not about intelligence or holding on to memory. Crosswords bring about a focused state of mind, the elusive "flow state."

Then there are days when I decide that this is all an elaborate self-deception. That the puzzle is indeed an escape mechanism. That crossword addiction is not a metaphor but a destructive, literal truth.

The Geography of Puzzle-Land

Time ruins everything. Because of it, food spoils, breasts sag, loved ones die. As a species we have developed clever ways to try to stop it — by looking at paintings and photographs, or even sometimes through the supremely temporal art form of music. Bill Evans playing "Detour Ahead" convinces you that you have, for the moment, stepped out of time.

The crossword eliminates time. It is a daily dip of the toe into the world conjured for Billy Pilgrim by Kurt Vonnegut, himself a lover of crosswords. True, Billy was shell-shocked and probably crazy even before he lived through the firebombing of Dresden. Still, I am convinced that we solve crosswords to become unstuck in time.

When immersed in the grid, the Emancipation Proclamation rubs elbows with HAL 9000. Thoughts bounce from the birthright of ESAU (convention dictates that crossword answers be rendered in all capital letters) to that Sunday afternoon thirty years ago when my mother, on the couch, awed by a particularly clever piece of crossword misdirection, exclaimed, "What an amazing language," prompting me to wonder, Is that true? More amazing than the others? If we tire of the GALAPAGOS Islands, we can skip over to EMO music in no time flat. While we may not be omniscient, it is the closest we can come to approaching omnipresence.

A recent theory for why we dream: our brain is playing Tetris. Whether we are sleeping in our beds or sleepwalking in front of this powerfully addictive video game, the mind needs to fit the scattered bits of our day together and file them accordingly. Stare at the black squares of a puzzle long enough and you will notice the same Legolike shapes that fall from the Tetris sky. The crossword creates a similar opportunity to find linkages between the apparently unrelated experiences of our lives.

In 1884, Edwin Abbott conceived of a world stripped of the third dimension and named it Flatland. Crossword puzzles exist outside the dimension of time, too, in the place the logician Raymond Smullyan named Puzzle-Land. Having an experience there is more spatial than temporal. In starting a puzzle, we step off the freeway of our lives on which we speed inexorably toward death, and enter into a place of stasis.

Do puzzles provide the only route to this place? Of course not. We pursue all kinds of endeavors — sex, drugs, yoga — to get there. Seeing things this way should not diminish our interest in puzzles but stoke it. It gives us an incentive to construct a natural history of the crossword. Examining its anatomy is the only way to understand its parasitic relationship to its host, the human organism.

The Tyranny of Narrative

The crossword is a pageant of people, places, and things — not as they are but the ideas of them, as they might appear in Plato's cave. In this world, any unanswered questions of real life melt away. URI Geller is simply a "mentalist" or "spoon bender." Here his main value is the attractive arrangement of vowels and consonants in his name. Besides, it has never been clear why one would want spoons bent in the first place.

In the world of the crossword, we are freed from the straitjacket of narrative linearity, which is one-dimensional, and get to stretch our legs in two dimensions and more. Cinema has been trying to do the same over the last few decades, following in the footsteps of the French nouveau roman by reordering the chronology. Still, those stories reorganize themselves after the fact into a series of events with a beginning, middle, and end. Like the phone book, the crossword boasts a rich cast of characters and no plot.

There are so many nonnarrative ways to engage the mind, and still our culture puts stories front and center. We are drowning in stories, whereas poetry subsists in the margins. It is no coincidence that one of America's most popular poets, Billy Collins, is essentially a prose writer who adds extra line breaks. Meanwhile, "storytelling" is uttered with the same reverence that politicians reserve for "family." How long before we are all sick to death of hearing other people's tales, as if each and every one of them were sacred? Joseph Campbell explained once and for all that there are not, in fact, eight million stories in the naked city but rather the same story eight million times. Enough with the stories.

The impulse to explain — in other words, journalism — is epidemic. Artists are now expected, in interviews and DVD commentaries, to give exegeses of their work instead of letting it speak for itself. The crossword offers daily relief from story, explanation, journalism. It engages the mind as a work of poetry, the parallelism of its themed entries serving the role of rhyme. A puzzle is not about anything. It is just an experience, with an arbitrary beginning, middle, and end that are unique for each solver. It's an accumulation of facts, like a New Yorker article from the Harold Ross years. We enjoy bursts of insight as we hopscotch over islands of meaning, and then it's over.

And so it goes with this book. What follows is a kind of diary, or journal, but with a crucial difference, since those concepts, derived as they are from words for day, are themselves bound up in the notion of time. The entries here carry no time stamp. They are instead a collection of dispatches from Puzzle-Land, stopping for a time at Alice's rabbit hole and meeting the occasional quirky word nerd but more often people who, for better or worse, use crosswords as a vital coping mechanism — for loneliness, depression, obsessiveness. Along the way, things will happen, to be sure, but the goal is less to recount a series of incidents (narrative, linear, one-dimensional) than it is to jump around the outline of this timeless, two-dimensional mental space — a latticework of associations going across and down — that is suggested by the crossword puzzle. And when we're done, instead of arriving at the end of a road, we will look down on the space we have delineated, as if from a satellite above Earth. Copyright © 2009 by Dean Olsher

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