Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book review: "Crossworld" by Marc Romano

There are tons of books filled with crossword puzzles, but almost none about crosswords. "Crossworld," by Marc Romano, helps fill that gap, giving us an inside look at the world of crosswords and the people who are passionate about them.

Crossword fans, both casual and serious, will find a lot to interest to them in "Crossworld." Romano outlines the history of the puzzles, takes us to the nation's biggest crossword competition, and profiles some of the key figures in the field, including New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz.

Unfortunately, readers will also find one major thing to dislike in "Crossworld": Romano himself, who annoyingly inserts himself into the story throughout the book. It's not just that Romano get's in the way like someone repeatedly popping in front of the TV screen when you're watching a movie it's also that he's a pretty unlikeable guy.

The book is divided roughly into three sections. In the first, Romano describes the origins of the crossword they're not as old as I thought; the first one was published in 1913. He also introduces some of the fundamentals of constructing crosswords and explains such terms as "the fill" and "keying." He describes the differences between crosswords in different countries, such as England's "cryptic" crosswords.

It's also here that Romano tells us how good he is at solving crosswords, a point he will repeat throughout the book long after you're sick of hearing it.

For a book about crosswords and related puzzles, "Crossworld" is oddly missing one thing: Visual examples.  Even though Romano talks about a variety of kinds of puzzles in the first section, there are zero samples here or anywhere in the book. For example, he describes "word squares," a type of puzzle that would be easy to understand if you saw one, but the textual description alone is unclear.

The middle section is devoted to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Romano's participation in it. This should have been the dramatic heart of the book, but unfortunately this is where Romano decides that talking about himself is more interesting than the tournament itself.

He pops a pill (Ativan) that, he admits, muddles his mind. He seems more interested in getting drunk (try to keep count of the number of his trips to the hotel bar) and leering at girls than the tournament, and then belatedly frets over his mistakes in the competition.  He stereotypes the tournament participants as introverts even though he makes little effort to talk to them.

The book bounces back well in its third section when, for the most part, Romano gets out of the way and profiles Shortz and other top crossword constructors, like Michael Shteyman and Stanley Newman. It's fascinating to see these men's mental agility when it comes to linguistic gymnastics. Shteyman's story is particularly interesting, since he transformed himself from a Russian immigrant speaking almost no English at age 13 into one of the top U.S. puzzle constructors just six years later.

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