This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

If you are one of the 50 million Americans who are believed to do crossword puzzles on a regular basis, you have a fellow traveler in Dean Olsher. Dean used to cover arts and culture for NPR. Now he's written a book about crosswords titled "From Square One." He calls it a collection of dispatches from puzzleland. Dean writes about what drives so many of us to fill in that black and white grid, how crosswords affect our brain or don't. Here's Dean Olsher reading from his book about the allure of what he calls his magnificent obsession.

Mr. DEAN OLSHER (Author, "From Square One: A Meditation with Digressions, on Crosswords"): 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 everyday because it's there.

BLOCK: And Dean there are real tensions there in what you're saying. You're saying part of this is like sort of Zen but part of it is pure addiction.

Mr. OLSHER: Yes. That is my ambivalence about crosswords and that's what fueled my writing of this book. You know, crosswords can be attractive because we think that they are helpful when it comes to mental health in all kinds of ways. But then the flip side of that is maybe just the opposite, maybe crosswords are not only not going to keep us from getting Alzheimer's - it's not a kind of meditative practice - but in fact may be its own form of mental illness.

BLOCK: And we'll talk about that because you tried to debunk this notion, which is propagated pretty widely, that if you do crossword puzzles that it can help your mental state. Maybe it'll help stave us Alzheimer's or dementia. You're not so sure about that.

Mr. OLSHER: No, not at all. I actually interviewed one of the first researchers in the Bronx, at Albert Einstein, who did the study that was very widely reported on. He was looking into leisure activities and the relationship to losing your mind. And, you know, he said first of all crosswords were only marginally related. Second of all, he never said that there was a cause and effect relationship. He said there is some correlation - maybe it just so happens that people who are mentally fit have a tendency to want to do crossword puzzles…

BLOCK: In the first place.

Mr. OLSHER: …in their first place, right.

BLOCK: Predisposed.

Mr. OLSHER: But, you know, what we're learning is that it really has a lot more to do with physical activity than it does with mental activity and that will be the thing that probably I think we're going to find out as most important.

BLOCK: You know, this question of whether crossword puzzles help our brain fits into this sort of running dialogue you have through the book with no - none other than WEEKEND EDITION's puzzlemaster Will Shortz. This is one of many points it seems on which you disagree with Will.

Mr. OLSHER: He's taken advantage of the marketing opportunity, which is to be expected, you know, and still there's whole series of books about how puzzles will keep your brain sharp and everything like that. He and I are on different sides of this and that's okay. I think we've agreed to disagree.

BLOCK: Do you remember, Dean, when the first time was that you did a crossword puzzle? When you got hooked?

Mr. OLSHER: I do not remember a time before crosswords. I did them with my mother. She introduced me to the New York Times crossword puzzle. And I do have a very early memory when she and I were working on a puzzle and there was an example of misdirection, you know, a clue that is making you think one way but in fact it's another. And she said what an amazing language and I found that's - I mean that's something I've thought of my whole life because I was thinking, gosh, is it true that the English language is more amazing than others?

BLOCK: It's interesting to think about those memories. I mean, I have a very distinct memory of sitting with my dad and watching him, and learning how to do the diagramless puzzle with, you know, piece of graph paper and pencils with big erasers on them.

Mr. OLSHER: Yeah.

BLOCK: …and that just sticks with you. I mean, I think once you get it you're stuck.

Mr. OLSHER: And I think this is a sort of an oral tradition in America. People pass down puzzles to the generations and have connections to their own mother or grandmother doing the puzzle and finding that sort of connection with another person in the family first.

BLOCK: You spend a lot of time in the book trying to wrestle with the question of why we do crosswords, what's appealing about them. What did you decide in the end?

Mr. OLSHER: I do think that there is this addictive property and that's a theme in the book. There is also a quality about them that is immersive and that's what we like about symphony orchestras, cinema. When you go into the grand movie palace with a large screen and you get sucked into the movie, I think something similar happens with crossword puzzles. We like to be sucked into something that's bigger than ourselves and makes us feel as if we've entered into this other world. It's a world that happens entirely inside our brain. And so that was the tricky part, was to try to get at this extremely interior experience.

BLOCK: Hmm. There is this other side to it I think, I mean - I'm speaking as a lifelong crossword puzzle doer, crossword puzzler. I'm not sure what the word is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Somebody who created crossword puzzles in her high school newsletter.

Mr. OLSHER: You did?

BLOCK: I share a studio with Robert Siegel who regularly does the London Times cryptic puzzle, so you're among friends here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: But isn't there something pretty basic about it, which is just that it makes you feel clever.

Mr. OLSHER: But here's the other thing: have you noticed, you do the New York Times puzzle, there's a set of references, right, that you're familiar with…

BLOCK: There's a sort of language of crosswords. Yeah.

Mr. OLSHER: Right. But if you step out of your own dialect and try a puzzle made by some other syndicator, edited by somebody else, don't you find that it's alien territory?

BLOCK: Well, I never do those puzzles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OLSHER: Yeah, exactly. Right. Because they reinforce the same set of associations, which is one of the reasons why I dispute the idea that crosswords will keep you from getting Alzheimer's because the fact is, it is kind of the same activity over and over again. And Alzheimer's research is showing really what matter is, novelty. So, maybe if you've never done crosswords, you do that for a while but then you switch to learning a new language or taking up a musical instrument. Constantly exposing yourself to something new, that is much more likely, I think, to keep you sharp in the long run.

BLOCK: Dean Olsher's book is titled "From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords." Dean, great to talk to you. Thanks a lot.

Mr. OLSHER: Thank you.

BLOCK: You can read an excerpt of "From Square One" at and Robert…

SIEGEL: Yeah, you give me too much credit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Well, you will be pleased to know that Dean Olsher is on a campaign a crusade maybe, you could say, to get more Americans hooked on the cryptic puzzle which you love so much.

SIEGEL: From the Times and they can looked at cruise like this one today: regularly indulge in, not working, four letters?

BLOCK: Idle, lazy.

SIEGEL: Idle, because idle occurs regularly every other letter in indulge, you see.

BLOCK: I'm going to think about that one for a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I love the cryptic Robert, but I have to say…

SIEGEL: It's not just the what, it's the how of it.

BLOCK: And it's all a code you have to figure out just by looking at the clue. The clues are complicated in themselves. Okay, Dean, Robert, you've got to hook people on the cryptics.

(Soundbite of song, "Cross Word Papa (You Sure Puzzle Me)")

Ms. JOSIE MILES (Singer): (singing) Sometimes it's hard to figure you out, cross word papa (unintelligible) papa, you sure do puzzle me.

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