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Crossworld: One Man's Journey Into America's Crossword Obsession

by Marc Romano
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Broadway
  • Publishing date: 13/06/2006
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780767917582
  • ISBN: 0767917588

Synopsis

Sixty-four million people do it at least once a week. Nabokov wrote about it. Bill Clinton even did it in the White House. The crossword puzzle has arguably been our national obsession since its birth almost a century ago. Now, in Crossworld, writer, translator, and lifelong puzzler Marc Romano goes where no Number 2 pencil has gone before, as he delves into the minds of the world’s cleverest crossword creators and puzzlers, and sets out on his own quest to join their ranks.

While covering the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for the Boston Globe, Romano was amazed by the skill of the competitors and astonished by the cast of characters he came across—like Will Shortz, beloved editor of the New York Times puzzle and the only academically accredited “enigmatologist” (puzzle scholar); Stanley Newman, Newsday’s puzzle editor and the fastest solver in the world; and Brendan Emmett Quigley, the wickedly gifted puzzle constructer and the Virgil to Marc’s Dante in his travels through the crossword inferno.

Chronicling his own journey into the world of puzzling—even providing tips on how to improve crosswording skills—Romano tells the story of crosswords and word puzzles themselves, and of the colorful people who make them, solve them, and occasionally become consumed by them.

But saying this is a book about puzzles is to tell only half the story. It is also an explanation into what crosswords tell us about ourselves—about the world we live in, the cultures that nurture us, and the different ways we think and learn. If you’re a puzzler, Crossworld will enthrall you. If you have no idea why your spouse send so much time filling letters into little white squares, Crossworld will tell you – and with luck, save your marriage.


CROSSWORLD | by Marc Romano

ACROSS
1. I am hopelessly addicted to the New York Times crossword puzzle.
2. Like many addicts, I was reluctant to admit I have a problem.
3. The hints I was heading for trouble came, at first, only occasionally.
4. The moments of panic when I realized that I might not get my fix on a given day.
5. The toll on relationships.
6. The strained friendships.
7. The lost hours I could have used to do something more productive.
8. It gets worse, too.

DOWN
1. You’re not just playing a game.
2. You’re constantly broadening your intellectual horizons.
3. You spend a lot of time looking at and learning about the world around you.
4. You have to if you want to develop the accumulated store of factual information you’ll need to get through a crossword puzzle.
5. Puzzle people are nice because they have to be.
6. The more you know about the world, the more you tend to give all things in it the benefit of the doubt before deciding if you like them or not.
7. I’m not saying that all crossword lovers are honest folk dripping with goodness.
8. I would say, though, that if I had to toss my keys and wallet to someone before jumping off a pier to save a drowning girl, I’d look for the fellow in the crowd with the daily crossword in his hand.

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  • Ah, what could have been
    From Amazon

    I bought this book hoping that it would be the WORD FREAK of the crossword community. It's not. To be fair, the author states right off that the book is really about him, and boy is it ever. The author went to Yale. We know because he mentions it. A lot. The author is reading Pynchon. We know because he mentions it. A lot. The author does crossword puzzles better than 90% of people. We know because....you get the picture. Ugh. The good news is that there is still room for a well-written book about the characters that make up the crossword community, and I really hope that someone reads WORD FREAK (at least the author copped to that) and decides to use it as inspiration for a better book. This slight volume just didn't do it for me. Go get the Fastis book instead, and enjoy!

  • Interesting but the false modesty and arrogance overwhelm
    From Amazon

    I really want to rate this 2.5 stars. Do you have a friend who says things like, "Yes, I may have gotten 800 on the math SAT but I only got an embarrassing 690 verbal?" If so, then you might be able to tolerate Romano's prose. If not, be forewarned: unless you can complete the Saturday New York Times puzzle in 10 minutes, you will be put in your place over and over by his false modesty. He says things along the lines of "It once took me a humiliating 20 minutes to do a Saturday NYT puzzle." If it's humiliating for him, what's that mean to the rest of us? He goes further to make-fun of and out-right condemn anyone who doesn't follow is own code of crossword conduct. If you look a word up, you're cheating and he can't imagine why you would do that. (Perhaps so you can learn words you don't know? Maybe to fill in a tough spot in the puzzle so you can continue to finish the rest of it and still have fun?) He implies that this is akin to just copying the answers from the next day's paper. There are also "facts" that I really have to question. He says he can finish a Monday puzzle in something like 60 seconds. It would take longer than that just to write the answers down if someone were reading the clues to you. Add in the time to flick your eyes from the clues to the grid and it becomes absurd. I can speed read but your comprehension deceases when you do. In a crossword puzzle, there's no context to help you when you misread a word. One letter difference changes the meaning entirely. In addition, even the easiest puzzles have clues that have more than one answer that is commonly used (genetic material can be RNA or DNA; mid-east leader can be EMIR or AMIR or any of a number of different spellings; there are several five letter "GREEK LETTER"s.) It takes time to go back. Even doing a "World's Easiest Crossword"-level puzzle that uses a 6th grade vocabulary and no words over 5 letters and reading only the across clues (not needing to read the down clues) would take me more than 60 seconds to fill out if my writing were to actually be remotely legible and in the correct little boxes. (But then, I'm a moron-- I'm only a Wednesday/Thursday-level solver.) I guess Romano is some freaky genius who not only can read and write in tiny boxes elsewhere on the page at the same time but he has ESP and always knows exactly what the puzzle author was thinking when composing the crossword. Given that, there is a lot of interesting information about the history of the New York Times Crossword puzzle in general and Will Shortz, its current editor, in particular. I came to respect, admire and actually like Shortz, who comes off as a nice, reasonable, easy-going fellow. There's information about who creates these teasers, the difference in puzzles across the Atlantic, and the anatomy of a puzzle. I also found the description of what a crossword puzzle tournament is like and the quirky people who attend to be entertaining. I found myself over and over wishing this had been written by someone else who couldn't possibly compete in the tournament (or would come in last) or that Romano had left his own role out of it and was more objective. While personal anecdotes and opinions can add to a story, make it more human, his arrogance and randiness (he is constantly on the prowl) are not just distracting, they're offensive. Instead of being appropriately impressed by and interested in all the contestants who compete (I think even the person who comes in last place is probably pretty darn good) I could only focus on him. By the time I finished the book I almost gave up solving puzzles because I felt like any reasonable person would realize I am too stupid and ignorant for real crossword puzzles and would be better off sticking to E-Z word searches and connect-the-dots. There's no doubt Romano is extremely intelligent-- he is this expert solver and he implies English isn't even his native language. But does he have to rub it in every other sentence? Last thoughts: the book was a little longer than it needed to be but it does include almost all of the puzzles from the competition, which was fabulous. I would have liked to see a few more puzzles, perhaps a sample from the New York Times for each day of the week and puzzles from some of the other publications (very briefly) mentioned like the Washington Post. While I certainly didn't buy the book for the puzzles, it would be very interesting to compare methodologies. I would have liked Romano to spend a little more time discussing puzzles in other papers. Also, acknowledging that people have to start somewhere and encouraging people to improve their skills with recommendations on how to do so would have been much more appropriate than his constant bragging. Then he might help people discover just how fun it is to do this pastime, recruiting people to the game rather than making people feel like outsiders who shouldn't even try. One more thing: He denigrates Sudoku as being just a "math puzzle" (what's wrong with math puzzles?) but Sudoku has absolutely nothing to do with math. There is no math involved at all. Any 9 characters or shapes would do. I've seen some using letters. Numbers are just easiest for us to recognize and pattern quickly, not to mention that it crosses language barriers by using Anglo-Saxon numerals which are more commonly used than the English alphabet. Sudoku is first and foremost a logic puzzle and could appeal to even a word smith who hasn't completed 3rd grade math. So, to sum up, I don't recommend this book. Watch the movie "Wordplay" Wordplayabout the tournament. Or better yet, Will Sholtz wrote a companion book to the movie Wordplay: The Official Companion Bookwhich I haven't read but might be a better insight in to the tourney. I can't believe it could be worse.

  • Interesting but grows tiresome
    From Amazon

    Romano, a longtime crossword fan, competes in the 2004 American Crossword Tournament in a Stamford, CT chain hotel. Within the tournament narrative, Romano discusses the history of the New York Times crossword puzzle and explores the personalities of many current constructors. Unfortnately, Romano's repeated self-promotion quickly grows tiresome. He constantly cites his streak of solving the NYT Sunday puzzle in less than 20 minutes and on page 189 claims to reread 'Gravity's Rainbow' every 2 years. He even implies that he could place much higher in the competition if he had approached it in a more serious manner. The book lauds NYT crossword editor Will Shortz (Shortz's entry fills 5% of the index) and the cover awkwardly features a rave from Shortz calling the text 'intelligent, literate and funny'.

  • Have You Heard about the Lonesone Loser?
    From Amazon

    On pages 105 and 106 of the paperback edition of "Cross World," some veteran puzzlers sit around with the author of the book and attempt to develop an anagram from the letters of his name. For instance, one of the puzzlers, Peter Gordon, uses the nom de plume "Ogden Porter" when it suits his fancy. The author suggests that finding a suitable anagram for "Marc Romano" was a tall order, but I think the group was just being kind. "Marc A. Moron" is the obvious solution. Or, if you allow "carma" as a variant of "karma," as Will Shortz would no doubt allow, then "Moron Carma" works out very well, too. "Cross World" is at best an essay or a magazine article in THE ATLANTIC or THE NEW YORKER, where people poke sticks at the real world and grimace horribly. The book's subject matter hardly justifies its length, and a kind editor might have trimmed a great deal of the empty philosophy and the over-the-top repetition. Of course, such an editor would have been obliged to deal with the author's ego. And wrestling that overweight gorilla to the ground may have been a feat no editor cared to attempt. The ego is huge indeed. Prepare to be regaled with how fast the author can solve puzzles, how easier crosswords are beneath his contempt, how too clever by half he is, etc., etc., etc. If a person is coming to crossword puzzles for the first time, this book might serve as an inspiration to choose another hobby. Can all puzzle solvers be such boors/bores? The meat of the essay, er, book, is the annual crossword puzzle contest in Stamford, Connecticut. Understanding what goes on there may actually hold some interest for the outsider. Unfortunately, this learning experience is tainted with the interjection of the author's personal experiences. He is so obnoxiously competitive that it's difficult to recall that crossword puzzles were devised as a means of intellectual entertainment. Who cares who's best? Did you have fun? At the end of "Cross World" are the puzzles from the 2004 Stamford competition. The reader can try to solve them in the prescribed time limit, then spend another five to ten minutes leafing back through the book to find the page on which the author describes how the scoring works. Of course, in his endless quest to display his brilliance and to extend his magazine article to more than 200 pages, he gives away many of the answers, which somehow detracts from the challenge of solving the puzzles. To handicap myself, I did the puzzles in bed in three separate sittings (or lyings), making sure that I had consumed a bottle of wine prior to each session. My score exceeded the author's by a healthy margin; I even added some time to account for the answers I already knew from the text and could fill in without much thought. As a result, I have concluded the following: Every year, alocal business magazine prints a survey profiling the 100 best companies to work for in the state. When the company I work for first took notice of the survey, I was designated to find out why we were not included. The magazine's editor informed me that our company had not applied. "So," I said, "the survey really showcases only the 100 best companies to work for in the state among those who applied." That's pretty much the case with the crossword contest, I imagine. There are, no doubt, many people who, choosing not to travel to Stamford and mingling with folks wearing crossword-puzzle-themed clothing, could nevertheless tear the cover off the ball if presented with the same crossword puzzles. However, buying a ticket to Stamford (i.e., "applying") automatically assures you that you will be among the "best."

  • Lack of depth makes for a dry book
    From Amazon

    What is it with authors writing about their neurosis with games and puzzles? First came the Scrabble obsession in the book World Freak. Now Marc Romano bows down to the Gods of crossword puzzles in his quest to finish high at the American Crossword Puzzle tournament. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the book. As a crossword puzzle doer, I can appreciate the skill and cognitive speed of some of the greatest puzzle solvers in the world, but Romano's lack of depth on the characters, other than Crossword God Will Shortz, made for a very boring book. Spliced with stories from the 2004 tournament in Stamford, CT, Romano's work is part history and strategy of the crossword puzzle, including the differences in skill and difficulty between American and British puzzles. Romano's main strength was how he provided a behind-the-scenes look in not only solving but construction of puzzles from the grid, to the fill to the cluing, which relies much on whoever the editor of the puzzle may be. In fact, Romano uses many pages to illustrate how Shortz has changed the face of crosswording by ramping up the difficulty in the puzzles from Monday to Saturday by adjusting the clues for the words. He does the same thing at the tournament for the three classification finals. Each skill level is given the same fill but different clues. Overall, the book was entertaining, but maybe there are just not as many eccentric personalities in crossword solving as there is in spelling bees and Scrabble tournaments to keep it interesting. Romano kept repeating his mantra about how honest and solitary the crossword puzzle solver was. Surely out of the supposed 64 million doers a week Romano cites (an inflated number I'm sure), there could be someone more inerestnig than the gifted but boring cast Romano includes.

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