Books: From Square One

Sometimes I try to think what subject I could conceivably write a book about. It would need to be something that I have enough interest in to do a lot of research. Sometime recently, I decided the general subject would be words. But that’s too broad. Maybe word games?

Even that covers a lot of territory. And there are probably a lot of books written on the topic already. Just a few weeks ago I saw one in the library – and would have checked it out if I hadn’t already had a pile of other books I planned to read. What about a particular word game, such as Scrabble? But any decent book about Scrabble would have to include Scrabble tournaments, and those do not interest me at all.

Then I thought of crosswords. Those are done for one’s own satisfaction, rather than to win competitions (or so I thought). There are different kinds of crossword puzzles, and there are all sorts of interesting tangents one could take, using the unusual words and clues one encounters in these puzzles. Plus, I had long wondered, just how does one create a crossword puzzle?

But were there already books written on the subject? I checked the library catalog, and found an entry for From Square One by Dean Olsher. It sounded fascinating, so I eagerly checked it out, and just finished reading it this week. It’s a short book, with a mix of all sorts of information (and opinions) about crosswords, the people who make them, and the people who solve them.

One question Olsher keeps returning to is why people do crossword puzzles. Is it for the satisfaction of finding the solution? Is it a habit, or even an addiction, like smoking? Olsher talks about the focused state of mind that working on a crossword produces, a bit like meditation. But his favorite theory seems to be that “we solve crosswords to become unstuck in time.”

Crosswords have no path that one has to follow from beginning to end. I usually start with 1 Across, but if a different clue happens to catch my eye as I pick up a new crossword, I start there. For the most part I work from left to right and top to bottom, but it’s extremely rare that the last word I fill in is at the bottom right. As Olsher points out, the clues and words exist “outside of time” – the name of a current sports celebrity might intersect with a character from the Iliad or a Renaissance painter.

There is no logic to the arrangement of the words except the placement of their letters. Even in puzzles where one clue references the answer to another, there is no pattern to where they appear in the grid. About the only puzzles I can think of where order matters at all are those that include a quotation, broken into several parts, where part 1 needs to come before part 2, 2 before 3, and so on.

I don’t know whether I agree with Olsher about that being part of the appeal of crosswords, however. When he states that “the crossword offers daily relief from story, explanation, journalism,” I wonder why people are looking for that relief. I love stories, and I look for explanations. There may be times I can’t find a good story or satisfying explanations, or when my brain is too tired to deal with them, so I look to crosswords. But if that were the answer, I’d find sudoku just as good an escape.

I think Olsher talks about sudoku somewhere in this book, but I’m not sure where. He intentionally compiled it, like a crossword, with no clear path from beginning to end. I’m not sure if it was also intentional that many of the early entries seem much more disjointed, like th scattered few words I can fill in on my first attempt at a New York Times Sunday crossword. Towards the end, the entries are longer and the connections are clearer, perhaps to give the same feeling as completing filling in the last words in a puzzle. Certainly I found the book more satisfying toward the end.

I do sudoku occasionally, either to kill time when I have nothing else to entertain myself, or to put myself to sleep at bedtime. It is pure logic, with no reference to anything in life, history, philosophy, or anything else outside itself. It focuses the mind, but in a sterile way. Crosswords focus the mind, but they create connections rather than shunning them. I can’t imagine finding anything in a sudoku puzzle to tell someone else about, but I may share a really satisfying clue/answer from a crossword with my husband or someone else who appreciates words and humor.

Olsher characterizes American crosswords as being purely about information. The more information you know, the more likely you will be able to fill in the answers. British crosswords, on the other hand, require much less knowledge of facts and more of an ability to think outside the box, to understand the clue in a non-literal way. Olsher does admit that American crosswords have begun to use non-literal clues a bit, but he doesn’t elaborate on that at all, even to give some examples.

I admit that those non-literal clues are often the most fun. One example that I have seen a number of times, and that really mystified me the first time, was “Modern art.” The answer is three letters long, and I could not think of any style of art that would fit. The answer, once I had filled in the cross-words, turned out to be ARE. I tried to think of what ARE might stand for, before I realized it is simply a form of the verb “to be.” Modern, because in today’s English we say “you are” in place of “thou art” in Elizabethan English.

That answer is extremely simple in comparison to the clues in British “cryptic” crosswords, however. I usually do the puzzle in the Saturday Wall Street Journal, but if it’s a cryptic I take one look and give up. Once someone tells me the answer to one of those clues, I can follow the connections, but they seem way too devious to come up with the answer just by reading the clues.

Now that I have read Olsher’s book, however, I might try one. In the book, Olsher has someone create a puzzle. I had hoped for more insight into how this is done, but while Olsher devotes a number of pages to this process, he gives no diagrams. I still don’t know if you start with one corner and gradually work out from there, or place long answers throughout the puzzle first and then come up with shorter words to fill in. (I suspect the latter from his discussion of “fill” words, but what do you do if you simply can’t come up with adequate fill at some spot?)

This puzzle was originally going to be a traditional American crossword, but then Olsher asked his friend to make it a cryptic. Towards the end of the book, he lists the various techniques uses in creating – and this in solving – the clues, along with examples and hints of how to recognize them. At the end he gives the completed (blank) puzzle, followed by the answers with explanations. (At least I think that’s what I saw, before I quickly turned back so I could work on the puzzle first myself.

So far I have solved three (maybe four) of thirty clues. (If you want to read the book and do the puzzle yourself, stop reading here.) The first one I managed was “Oddly, darker aims concealing a lofty ambition (5).” I knew from Olsher’s list that the first word of the clue was telling me to pick out the odd-numbered letters in some part of this clue. It seemed likely that the phrases would be “darker aims,” which was “concealing” something that means “a lofty ambition.” Sure enough, when I started with the first letter of “darker” and then every other letter, I came up with DREAM.

Next, I figured out that “Independent in disorganized U.S. Senate is least comfortable (9)” meant that I needed to scramble (disorganize) the letters in “U.S. Senate,” and that the answer was going to mean “least comfortable.” But that was only eight letters, and the number in parentheses tells me that the answer would have nine. Oh, it’s that Independent I need to put “in” the “disorganized” word. I wasn’t sure it was going to be the letter I for independent or just another letter independent of the rest, but it did turn out to be an I. I was sure I would need the superlative suffix “-est” and quite likely the prefix “un-” (because of “least”), which left me with “EAS.” It didn’t take me long to figure out where to insert an I to get UNEASIEST.

Now if you think those are complicated, they are the easiest clues in the whole puzzle. I determined that some clues are telling me that I need to look at a word spelled in reverse, or that one word gets inserted in the middle of another, but I haven’t come up with any ideas on what those words are. Others are completely mysterious to me. But I have a few weeks before I have to return the book, so I’m in no hurry to look at the answers.

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