In the summer of ’85, Yale undergrad Marc Romano voyaged with a handful of buddies to a vacation home in New Canaan, Connecticut, “where the beer flowed.” Little did he know that the next morning, just after a chance coffee-and-newspaper run, he would encounter the crossword puzzle. Ever since then, Romano has been fascinated by these games. He even uses, perhaps unknowingly, an addict’s terminology: “Until, about 1996, my puzzling was purely recreational…” Crossworld begins with a brief summary of these events, then island-hops through an archipelago of genres: history, memoir, journalism, help manual, and appreciatory meditation. First we learn of the surprisingly interesting history of word games in general, and how this type of game fits into it. We then learn about the crucial 1996 event that rocked Romano’s world: his discovery of the annual Crossword Tournament. For years afterwards, he recorded his times, competing against himself as training. In 2003, he attended the tournament to write an article for the Boston Globe, and vowed at that point to compete there in ’04. At this point in the book, we meet Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle and tournament master of ceremonies, the masterful guru who gives Romano perhaps more insight into the game and its history than anyone else possibly could. Also here is Brendan Emmett Quigley, a young puzzle “constructor” for the Times who acts as a “Virgil” through this crossword subculture. This guy is quirky, but perhaps too much so; “I think I’m giving up on women,” he admits. “Right now, all I have is puzzles.”
Up until this point, the outline of this book seems pretty tight. The execution, on the other hand, is not as good. The book often takes unpredictable tangents into curious but otherwise unnecessary anecdotes. Moreover, several of these anecdotes, quotes, and clichés are repeated ad nauseum. How many times must we hear, for example, that crossword competitors are very honest, or that a London crossword featured the word “Overlord” days before D-Day? This appears to be an editing issue that could have been easily addressed. And while Romano seems like a cool guy, this seems to be laid on a bit thick, as he mentions more than once hanging out with the “cool kids at the tournament” at the hotel bar. The last objective of the book is to give tips to would-be crossword competitors, and this objective fails because there is no conclusive advice at all. One expert’s advice is, “I don’t really think about what I’m doing;” another’s is, “I don’t try to make a point of learning – it’s something that just happens.” The author’s advice? “Intraword pattern recognition.” I’m still not sure what that means.
Crossworld seems to fit into a recent genre of non-fiction chronicling word competitions (including the films Spellbound and Word Wars*, which deal with spelling bees and Scrabble competitions, respectively). These documentaries (especially Word Wars) were excellent for their portrayal of passionate individuals for whom these tournaments carried great personal and emotional significance. The personal stakes of the crossword tournament, as portrayed by Romano, were nowhere as high as they were for the word warriors of the two films. Something tells me, though, that either a more detached or a more personalized view would have been more effective. Romano himself is an interesting character, and his compulsive crossword addiction has actually reached disturbing heights. In one episode of the book, Romano even describes passing out at his sister’s apartment and spending time afterwards in the hospital, all right after a tournament. Whether or not this had any emotional cause or consequence on Romano is unknown to the reader.
In today’s Washington Post puzzle (Oct. 5, 2005), clue 46 Down reads, “Fixes an article.” Interestingly enough, the five-letter answer is “edits” (a tip that Romano, a journalist and editor himself, could have used in the development of this work). But what the hell do I know? I can’t even figure out the clue that intersects with the letter ‘i.’ Perhaps I need more work on my “intraword pattern recognition.”
*Big fans of the film Word Wars may be pleased to learn that it was inspired by the book Word Freak, and that there is another documentary film starring many of the star Scrabble competitors out there, Scrabylon, which is available on Netflix. Also of interest is that the annual crossword tournament is held at the same Stamford, Connecticut hotel where a tournament in Word Wars also takes place.