October 27, 2005


As promised, today I begin my review of Marc Romano's Crossworld -- although it's less of a review than a series of notes I would have given if I had been the editor.

The very first sentence of the introduction put me on my guard:

This is a book about my yearlong journey into the world of competitive crossword solving -- although saying that is a little like saying "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is a song about a girl or The Scream is a painting of a guy standing on a bridge.

I think what he was probably trying to say was that there's more to the world of crosswords than one might see on the surface, but it comes off much more like "My book is a fucking masterpiece. Welcome."

From pages 9-10, discussing Will Shortz's ascent to his position as the New York Times crossword editor:

When Eugene T. Maleska sloughed his mortal coil in late 1993, the list the New York Times Corporation's headhunters came up with as potential replacements probably numbered only one.

Probably? Well, heaven forbid you actually try to find out.

From page 15, the sentence that made me get out my pencil and start writing directly on the pages of the book:

What is it about crosswords that made them an instant public sensation, and keeps them a sensation today, pretty much all over the globe? One reason might be that they act as a sort of barometer of one's own acculturation; if you can do the crossword in your nation's newspaper of record, it means you're smart and mentally agile and hip (to use a word that has never to my knowledge appeared in the Times puzzle) enough to say "I belong here"....

The word "hip" has never appeared in the New York Times crossword puzzle? What a...just...crazy thing to say. Because the letters in HIP are so rare, and crosswords have so few three-letter words in them, and the word itself is archaic and obscure, it stands to reason that it would be safe to say that it virtually never appears in crosswords. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!

Now this next one is just being picky. But it is an inconsistency. First quote is from the rear sleeve of the book jacket, second quote is from page 20.

[Marc Romano] lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he averages four to ten minutes on the New York Times daily puzzle (sixteen on Sunday).
[Jon Delfin] can do the Sunday Times puzzles in less than ten minutes with something approaching 100 percent accuracy, while it takes me an average of twenty-three minutes or so to do the same.

Twenty-three didn't sound sexy enough for the book jacket?

Later on the same page, he discusses New York's particular suitability for puzzle solving (all that time -- generally in approximately crossword-length increments -- spent on subways), and compares it to other cities:

Of all the cities on the planet, maybe only Paris and Moscow offer something similar, and it's perhaps no coincidence that Paris and Moscow happen to be the two other cities worldwide that have active and extremely competent puzzling populations.

The two? The only two? What about London, for god's sake, just to name one? Not to mention that London also has a mass transit system quite a lot like New York's as well. But he goes on:

(Tokyo would seem to fit the bill, but overcrowding is a big problem there; it's hard to do a crossword when you're constantly jostled on the streets or packed sardinelike into a subway car, where all you really can do is grope other people, if that's your particular vice, or be groped, or read a paperback.)

Well, how then does one explain that Tokyo (and Japan in general) is home to tons of puzzle magazines? Not so much crosswords, as Japanese isn't really suited to crosswords, but still -- puzzles. (Also note this early foray into skeeviness, with the groping. There is more to look forward to.)

New Yorkers in the inner subway system tend to read, write, do crosswords, or doze -- though the latter practice can be unwise, given the pickpockets.

This made me roll my eyes. New York is so not as dangerous as it's made out to be, and the joke isn't funny enough to warrant leaning on the stereotype.

Many a first date, I suspect, has been arranged after Party A on the subway asked Party B what his or her take was on the answer to 22-Down...

Yyyyyeah. "Many". It was at this point that I starting feeling that the suspecting-to-reporting ratio was maybe a bit high.

In one 1998 puzzle that has become famous among the solving community, one hopeful suitor even managed to convince Will Shortz to encode a message asking the woman of the young man's dreams -- an avid daily puzzler -- to marry him. Shortz agreed, as did the girl.

Of course this is entirely different than love connections being made on the subway over a particularly impressive performance on a Saturday puzzle. Also, this telling of the wedding proposal anecdote completely ignores the fact that while Will did make it happen (and came up with the theme entries), the crossword itself was constructed by Bob Klahn.

I was lucky enough (or guileful enough) to attend the 2003 [American Crossword Puzzle Tournament] as a reporter and had the chance to witness Crossworld in operation firsthand.

And with that cheesily gratuitous use of the book title, we come to the end of my notes on chapter one. There will be more -- oh so much more -- to come.

Posted by Francis at 12:41 AM

I also started a list of notes/errors, but haven't picked up the book in months. You'd think a book about my own little world would get devoured eagerly.

First on the list was the HIP comment. I checked the cruciverb.com database and of course HIP has appeared in the NYT puzzle. Peter can fill you in on the mistelling of the "can't solve his own puzzle faster than a champ" story. On the other hand, Helene was happy to hear she was still in college in 1973.

I'm sure you or me or Jon or or any number of people who work with RH would have been happy to vet this book had anyone thought to ask.

Posted by: Ellen at October 27, 2005 02:32 AM

Wow. Yikes. I think he may be first up against the large 15x15 whiteboards when the revolution comes.

Posted by: Lance at October 27, 2005 03:35 AM

Oh yes, I already have Peter's correction on hand and ready to go, once I get to that chapter. Didn't notice the misreporting of Helene's college years though.

Posted by: Francis at October 27, 2005 08:43 AM

I haven't read the whole thing; I confess to only having looked at the bits where I'm mentioned/interviewed. But the long phone interview he did with me did not build up my confidence for the book, and I can't say I'm surprised. (This is, after all, the guy who compared me to a horse in the Boston Globe, so I'm hardly unbiased, but still.)

Posted by: Kath at October 27, 2005 09:00 AM

When I read a book that is so poorly written (and edited) in that special, my-sentences-are-grammatical-but-I-am-an-intellectual-sloth way, I like to imagine a library copy of the book to which all subsequent waves of readers have taken a pencil--even if the author never sees it, future readers will not be alone in their aggravation.

Posted by: Laura at October 27, 2005 10:15 AM

Yep, HIP's got 17 uses in the NYT, according to the Cruciverb database.

Continue the evisceration. Will you be pointing out the typos, or sticking with content problems?

Posted by: Orange at October 27, 2005 10:54 AM

It seemed like it would be boring to point out typos and straight copyediting-type notes (like that I would have removed the word "that" in the sentence "Puzzle constructors are the crème de la crème of the crossword world, but as a group they don't tend to do that exceptionally well in a competitive environment" on page 26), but if there's a particularly amusing or egregious one I'll probably mention it.

Posted by: Francis at October 27, 2005 11:03 AM

17 uses, but Eugene and Will used the same damn clue every time. "Thigh bone connected to the ___ bone"

Posted by: Charles at October 27, 2005 11:21 AM

OK, so he's a corny writer and didn't bother to do decent research. What about the actual content -- is it an inferior attempt at writing a book like WORD FREAK? Or are you working up to that? In which case I'll wait. As a non-puzzle-expert, I was kinda curious about this book, because I have a fascination with people who can solve puzzles quickly and brilliantly.

Posted by: Col at October 27, 2005 12:22 PM

OMG. I particularly like
In one 1998 puzzle that has become famous among the solving community, one hopeful suitor even managed to convince Will Shortz to encode a message asking the woman of the young man's dreams -- an avid daily puzzler -- to marry him. Shortz agreed, as did the girl.

This is bad parallelism, to boot, right? Because 'convince' really doesn't need to be followed with "Shortz agreed." It sounds like the author is one of those people who believe that if they use the same word twice in one paragraph they will break out in hives. It also sounds like Will agreed to marry the guy too. One big happy ...

Posted by: Erin at October 27, 2005 01:34 PM

Colleen: The book improves when he starts talking about the crossword tournament itself, since it's personal anecdotes, which one can't spend so much time picking apart for factual errors. But it's no Word Freak; you don't really get to know anyone except for Brendan Quigley, who is kind of a character, and I think the author captures him very well. But most other people are only mentioned in passing; the bulk of the tournament sections of the book are taken up with discussions of what solving the crosswords was like, what errors he made, and which women were hot. Basically, it's too much about him and not enough about other people. Stefan Fatsis spent a lot of Word Freak talking about his own quest to acquire Scrabble skillz, but you felt much more like you were getting to know people on the way.

Posted by: Francis at October 27, 2005 01:57 PM

I did not care so much about the copy editing mistakes as about the constant speculation. Most of my gripes are in my review on amazon.com.

Lately I seem to be reading only books with some good information that are hurt by the authors' being so in love with their own wittiness -- Passionate Marriage, a bit, and Battling the Id (Inner Dummy), which could be infuriating -- but nothing comes close to Crossworld in this regard.

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