Here’s Looking at You, Grid: A History of Crosswords and Their FansHistorians in the News
tags: books, newspapers, puzzles, Amusements
Peter Sagal is a daily Times crossword solver and the host of NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” His latest book is “The Incomplete Book of Running.”
In a 1924 editorial headlined “A Familiar Form of Madness,” this newspaper expressed its disdain for that vulgar new entertainment, that lowly diversion for idle minds, that pointless display of erudition known as the “cross-word”: “Scarcely recovered from the form of temporary madness that made so many people pay enormous prices for mahjong sets, about the same persons now are committing the same sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letter of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.” A year later, this Olympian condescension had gotten a little desperate: “The craze evidently is dying out fast and in a few months it will be forgotten.”
How and why this “craze” arose and persisted, and how The New York Times came to not only change its institutional opinion but become the epicenter of American crossword culture, is the story told by Adrienne Raphel in her cultural and personal history of crosswords and the “puzzling people who can’t live without them,” of which she is clearly one. At the end of this diverting, informative and discursive book, her love for crosswords is clear, but her reasons—despite a determined effort on her part to explain them—remain, in the end, a puzzle of their own.
Raphel proves a skilled cultural historian, dipping into newspaper archives and movie reels and private correspondence to describe how the crossword came to conquer the world. The first “Word-Cross Puzzle” was invented out of desperation by Arthur Wynne, the British-born editor of the Sunday color supplement (titled, simply, “FUN”) for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. The deadline for the Christmas 1913 edition was upon him, and he had a blank space and nothing to fill it with. Perhaps that very problem suggested its solution: a puzzle in which readers had to fill in blank spaces with ideas of their own.