It is in the modern era that this book loses its lapidary elegance. Raphel profiles some of the pastime’s modern titans, including the reigning monarch Will Shortz, current Times puzzle editor (and NPR “puzzlemaster”). We meet many constructors and their artful creations, and we visit the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, founded by Shortz and held each spring in Stamford, Conn. But none of these people seem as vivid as their long-dead predecessors.
Raphel relates how Ruth van Phul, that first tournament champion, eventually set puzzles aside to become a world-renowned scholar, enamored of James Joyce’s wordplay. Or consider the romantic, elegiac chapter in which Raphel describes how Vladimir Nabokov maintained his connection to his wife, Vera, then a patient in a sanitarium, by sending her love notes filled with crosswords to solve, revealing his devotion letter by letter. But no one now alive seems quite as, well, alive.
Raphel includes a few quotes from the blog of Prof. Michael Sharp, who posts often savage reviews of every daily Times crossword under the pseudonym Rex Parker — but she never talks to him about his obsession or his adopted persona as the curmudgeonly scold whom every constructor resents but many secretly want to please. Raphel herself competes in the crossword tournament (she does poorly), but the winners go unnamed and unquoted. Who are these people, who have devoted their efforts to become the greatest crossword solvers in America? If Raphel had talked to the tournament announcer Greg Pliska, she would have discovered he’s a talented constructor who wooed his wife with a series of original puzzles, the final one of which was a crossword with the solution: “WILL YOU MARRY ME?” Perhaps not as elegiac as Nabokov — but unlike Nabokov, he’s still here.
Instead of solvers Raphel gives us philosophy, in a chapter on representation and reality in crosswords that begins to feel stretched. Some of her assertions seem disproportionate, as when she claims: “We tell ourselves games in order to live.” (Somewhere, Abraham Maslow mutters, “Really?”) I am a philistine, socially awkward with a face made for radio, but I would rather associate myself with the less cerebral explanation offered by Thomas Harris, in a very different context, in his novel “The Silence of the Lambs”: “Problem-solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.”
In my favorite memoir chapter, Raphel visits a writing retreat to construct her own crossword. After much technical discussion of grids and themes and fill, she writes: “I became a mechanical god. I shifted gears; I tuned each letter individually. … I was a chemist, titrating my micro-universe; a lepidopterist, shifting a butterfly’s wing onto a pin.” She was also, in this and only this, a failure. Her puzzle was rejected, as so many are, by The Times. But her affectionate exegesis of this pastime, this passion, this “temporary madness,” succeeds. Like a good crossword, her book challenges us to back away from our assumptions, allows us to think differently and apply ourselves again.