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Across and down the crossword world - ‘Thinking Inside the Box’

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I love crossword puzzles. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve found real joy in solving those black-and-white grids. From the daily newspaper to collections in books to online sources, I’ve been a cruciverbalist for most of my life.

But I’m far from the only person out there with a devotion to the joyous wordplay that comes with crosswords, spending a portion of just about every day working my way across and down, filling in the blanks and feeling the satisfaction of a finished puzzle. Millions of people engage with crosswords every day, though we all have our routines – some solve at breakfast, others as a break during the day; some solve on their commutes, others in the evening to bring their day to an end. Maybe it’s intellectual engagement they seek. Perhaps a competitive thrill. Regardless, it ultimately boils down to love of the game.

Adrienne Raphel loves crosswords as well. She loves them so much, in fact, that she went ahead and wrote a book about them. “Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them” (Penguin Press, $27) is a thoughtful and in-depth look at a hobby that has been occupying minds for over a century. Through a combination of historical research and first-person experience, Raphel takes the reader on an engaging and entertaining stroll across and down the cross-world.

The crossword puzzle’s beginnings were humble, to be sure; essentially, they came to be because the New York World needed to fill some empty column inches back in 1913. No one could have predicted the explosive and almost overnight popularity the puzzle would achieve. In the 1920s, a time packed with various and sundry fads that would rapidly sweep the nation and just as quickly burn out, the crossword managed to maintain its popularity far longer than other trends.

And on through the evolution of the puzzle, from its inclusion in the newspaper with which it would become most closely associated – the New York Times – in the 1940s to the stylistic growth through the latter part of the 20th century to its welcome adjustment to the internet age. It’s a rich and thorough history, one that features a number of fascinating and eccentric characters – the people who solve these puzzles, yes, but also the wonderful and weird cohort of people who construct them.

Intersecting with this meticulously researched look at the hobby’s history, we get first-person accounting and reportage from Raphel, who allows us to accompany her on her own exploration of the crossword realm. She takes us on a crossword-themed cruise, one rife with people whose puzzling obsession is nigh-boundless. She calls on the legendary Will Shortz, longtime editor of the Times’ crossword and the most prominent name in the world of modern cruciverbalism. We even check in with the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held annually in Stamford, Connecticut.

There’s so much here, even for those with a lengthy cruciverbalistic history. The early days are fascinating, of course. Did you know that there’s considerable difference of opinion regarding the superiority of U.S. versus U.K. puzzles? Or that Stephen Sondheim – yes, THAT Stephen Sondheim – is largely responsible for the British-style cryptic crossword crossing the Atlantic? Raphel even presents a chapter called “This is Not a Crossword” that ingeniously connects crossword puzzles to the work of Rene Magritte and other surrealist artists.

The common thread throughout is the clear passion Raphel has for crosswords, resulting in a fun and celebratory read. She is present on every single page, her joyful love for these puzzles and the people who embrace them is palpable. The combination of historical snapshots and personal experience results in a layered and captivating piece of nonfiction.

One might think it would be tough to make a book about crossword puzzles narratively entertaining, but that’s precisely what “Thinking Inside the Box” manages to be, thanks to Raphel’s considerable prose gifts. The book is smartly constructed and surprisingly funny, with the author unfailingly finding moments to sing her subject’s praises even as she digs deep; it is a work as elegantly constructed and intellectually engaging as the very best examples of the craft it explores.

Crossword devotees – among whose numbers I very much count myself – will absolutely adore this book. Even the most hardcore among us will almost certainly discover something new here. Yet even those with just a passing puzzling familiarity will be engaged, thanks to Raphel’s captivating storytelling style and clear love for her subject matter. Just smart and quirky and a hell of a lot of fun.

In closing, a crossword clue: Eleven-letter word for “Quality of Adrienne Raphel’s ‘Thinking Inside the Box.’”


Last modified on Sunday, 05 April 2020 14:30


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