The Spectator

Crossword, Sudoku Plague Threatens America!

The puzzle of puzzle people.

Someone once said the world can be divided into two kinds of people: The kind who say “the world can be divided into two kinds of people” and the kind who don’t.

I’m the first kind, a divider rather than a uniter, and this morning another two-kinds-of-people-in-the world bifurcation occurred to me: The world is divided between those who willingly waste precious moments, hours, weeks, years of life doing crosswords, double-crostics, sudoku, and other word and number puzzles—and those (like myself) who are virtually allergic to them. (The puzzles, not the people.)

I’m not claiming any superiority for those who share my allergy. (Well, that’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.) I just think our brains are wired differently. Really differently.

Try this experiment at a dinner party (if you want to ruin it). Mention a frequent obsession of puzzle people, the NPR “news quiz” show, Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! (Or, as I call it, “Wait Wait … Please Kill Me!”) About half the attendees will exhibit violent, often physical reactions ranging from cringing to shuddering. Meanwhile, the other half will have sublime self-satisfied smiles. They sometimes get the answers before the guests! The show is so mentally stimulating!

What always gets to me is the self-congratulatory assumption on the part of puzzle people that their addiction to the useless habit somehow proves they are smarter or more literate than the rest of us. Need I suggest that those who spend time doing crossword puzzles (or sudoku)—uselessly filling empty boxes (a metaphor for some emptiness in their lives?)—could be doing something else that involves words and letters? It’s called reading.

But somehow crossword types think that their addiction to this sad form of mental self-abuse somehow makes them “literary.” Sorry: Doing puzzles reflects not an elevated literary sensibility but a degraded letter-ary sensibility, one that demonstrates an inability to find pleasure in reading. Otherwise, why choose the wan, sterile satisfactions of crosswords over the far more robust full-blooded pleasures of books?

But, again, let’s try to take seriously the self-image of puzzle people as brainiacs. (Come on, try!) Isn’t it a tragedy, then, a criminal shame, that all their amazing brainpower gets wasted on word games? If they’re as smart as they think they are and there were some way to channel their alleged brainpower to something other than word games, we could cure cancer in a month!

Seriously, if their awesome problem-solving brainpower were somehow harvested like wind energy (maybe they could wear little beanies on their heads?) they could solve all the world’s problems and have time left over to do an extra double-crostic.

Indeed, if all the scientists who are also puzzle people would put their puzzle time in service of humanity rather than Will Shortz (the New York Times guru), I bet there’d be a cure for at least a minor disease that real people are suffering from. OK, the beanies were a joke, but I see something like The Matrix, eventually (a crossword is a matrix, right?), where the brains of crossword types are harvested for their hyperactive but otherwise pointless synaptic flickering.

What are some of the other defenses of the puzzle people? “It trains the mind.” No, sorry; it only trains the mind to think in a tragically limited and reductive fill-in-the boxes way. I’d say that instead it drains the mind. Drains it of creativity and imagination while fostering rat-in-a-maze skills.

But, alas, more and more people are succumbing to box-brain syndrome. Isn’t it sad the way so many people who otherwise look normal have become sudoku zombies? Sudoku has been turning ordinary humans into pod people for less than a decade. It’s grown so fast its depredations have flown beneath the radar of economic indices—its matrix has escaped our metrics—but I think a serious case can be made that the decline in the American economy can be blamed on the sapping of the mental energy and productivity of the American workforce that sudoku addiction alone has wrought. It’s a terrible thing to behold: on commuter trains, in Starbucks, in offices, the Slaves of Sudoku hunched over their puzzle books, addicted to the mind-numbing hillbilly heroin of the white-collar class.

Just one indication of the scope and consequences of the epidemiclike spread of the puzzle-brain disorder: I just went down to my local Barnes & Noble megastore and found they had six full-sized floor-to-ceiling columns of shelves devoted to nothing but crossword-puzzle and sudoku books.

And I made another discovery: Nearly every major metropolitan daily newspaper puts out a line of crossword-puzzle books. None is as prolific as the Times and its crossover crossword-sudoku master, Mr. Shortz, but the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe each had their own row for their crossword puzzle collections.

It suddenly occurred to me that things must be even worse for the newspaper business than I had imagined. Crosswords and sudoku may be all that holds up the bottom line. Truly, the last days are upon us: People apparently now buy the newsprint editions only because you can do the puzzles in them.

You would think these newspapers might try to put together collections of their great reporting and photography. No, easier to cater to the crossword crazies. Penny-wise, pound-foolish. Newspapers sealed their fate once they let the anti-reading puzzles into their pages, and sudoku is the death knell. Pretty soon they’re going to find their readership deserting them for the puzzle books. Forget the eight-part series on hunger in Appalachia.

The other thing you discover at the Barnes & Noble wall of shame is that Will Shortz is the anti-Christ. Or Satan. One of those very, very bad—biblically bad—guys. He’s got his name on what seems like hundreds, thousands of books of mind-numbing, self-lobotomizing crossword and sudoku puzzles. He’s a one-man brain-drain.

I have to say my favorite Shortz book featured him dressed up in a Baron Samedi top hat and tails holding a Hula-Hoop. It was entitled: Will Shortz’s Funniest Crossword Puzzles and it promised “his top picks for the most side-splitting puzzles.” That’s right, “side-splitting.” They will “make you chuckle, chortle, groan or moan.”

And let me tell you, does this book deliver! The unbridled hilarity starts on Page 1 with a puzzle titled “Double Indemnity.”

I’ll just give you a sample of the first five “down” clues, and you can see why his admirers must be rolling on the floor, splitting their sides.

  1. Low Islands
  2. Baseballer Matty or Felipe
  3. Prune, formerly
  4. Highly ornamented style
  5. Tell ___ glance.

Whoa, dude, you’re killin’ me! Prunes are always comedy gold, aren’t they? No wonder they call this book his “funniest.” They don’t get better than this, do they?

Then, just to prove my theory that puzzle people’s brains are hardwired really differently, I bought a copy of Sudoku for Dummies. I got as far as Page 9, a section titled “Looking at the (slightly) bigger picture.” Here it is, in all its revelatory simplicity, for us dummies:

” ‘Well,’ you might say, ‘looking at one column solves nothing.’ But wait … By revealing the next column, as in Figure 1-4, you expose a 9 in row 6. Obviously, with a 9 in this row, the option of 9 in box 4 at row 6 has been disproved, and the option can be erased. The 9 has to go in the only other available square at row 4, column 1 (or square 4, 1). This is our first solved number. Whew! That wasn’t so difficult was it?”

Well, yes. Yes, actually, it was. It didn’t make the slightest bit of sense, and even if it did, I wouldn’t care. Who could possibly care? So, yes, I’m too dumb for Sudoku for Dummies (maybe I need Sudoku for Dummies for Dummies), even though, and I say this only to make the sudoku zombies crazy, I was Phi Beta Kappa at Yale. (Whew, I knew I’d find a rationale for working that in eventually.)

What gets me is the dumbing down, the narrowing of the notion of “puzzle.” People, there are real puzzles out there ranging from the metaphysical (“Why is there something rather than nothing?”) to the physical (How did consciousness arise from unconscious material?) to the moral (When do human rights begin—at conception, birth, or somewhere in between, and why?) and historical (Was CIA counter-spy James Angleton right about the “mole” who may or may not have changed history?), the geopolitical (NATO membership for Ukraine?) and the cultural (Why did they cancel Mystery Science Theater 3000, the smartest show on television?).

I know that I’m a partisan divider, but to me it seems that puzzle people are fleeing from real puzzles—fleeing the complexity, the fear of the unknown, fleeing from the messiness of life that cannot be contained in a box, fleeing to an illusion of mastery and control. They’re control freaks seeking control of something worthless: “I can fill in a bunch of boxes with letters!”

Those little crossword-puzzle boxes serve as the fragile containment structures for their darker fears, cells they lock themselves into in order to hide from the world. Hide from the fact that there are so many things they will never find answers for. There are so many things that will never be solved. But 21 Down—got that covered!

(By the way, I don’t include games like Scrabble or charades on my list of trivial pursuits. Nor Trivial Pursuit. Some of these are loved by people not for the intellectual self-abuse they offer but for the social interaction—you know, the fun with other humans!—that can be generated by the competition. These games, and others like them, are not as isolating and reductive as word and number puzzles done in solitary.)

Maybe it will help solve the puzzle of puzzle people—and offer them some consolation for all this (good-natured) abuse—if I explain the “inciting incident” for this column, an experience at what I call the Starbucks of Tears.

It’s located across the street from my apartment building but, more importantly, a block away from a megahospital. So in addition to the usual Starbucks crowd of laptop hustlers, one can often find people quietly sobbing, or trying not to sob, or staring into space over their lattes. A loved one they’ve just visited, perhaps for the last time, a terrible diagnosis, a shadow on an X-ray that means a recurrence.

Anyway, one morning I was sitting at the counter reading. (For you puzzle people: Reading is a seven-letter word for what you’re depriving yourself of every sad minute you’re spending on your empty boxes.) To the left of me, there was a sudoku woman and to the right of me there was guy who was working on a New York Times crossword puzzle. Not the puzzle in the actual paper—he didn’t have the paper itself—just what looked like a carefully clipped out and photocopied version of the crossword puzzle.

Anyway, this was a sane, intelligent-looking, even imposing guy in his 40s, wearing a dark suit in the August heat. The newspaper that morning was filled with world-shaking news, and yet this guy’s brow was furrowed with concern over such challenging clues as “18 Across: Mauna _ _ _.”

Whew, tough one, dude. It’s true not all the clues were as difficult as that, but some were even harder. But there was help available. You know the expression used about some people, “Can’t buy a clue”? Well with the Times not only can you buy a clue, you know exactly how much it costs: $1.49 a minute at 1-900-289-CLUE. But couldn’t it be said that even people who don’t have to buy a clue, but spend their time pursuing clues to the meaningless puzzles, are clueless?

My critique is really a bit hyperbolic, I know. I’m not that harsh. De gustibus and all that. Live and let live. These people just practice another religion, pray to another god (this one called Shortz). So why should I care that the puzzle people will die missing some of the high points of the human spirit to be found in reading, just so they can get their sudoku time in? It’s their loss. And I hear girls really go for guys who do sudoku.

And, as I said, it may just be that they can’t help it. That there are two kinds of brains. Those hardwired to obtain deep pleasure from arranging letters in boxes and those hardwired to get the creeps from the process.

But that same morning when I felt myself despair at the sudoku slaves and the crossword-crazed, I also realized that there was a dimension to it, at least here in the Starbucks of Tears, that I wasn’t recognizing.

That sometimes one only wants numbness. One doesn’t want to be reminded of the full-blooded life that one can find in reading. That full-blooded life can only make one think of the death that awaits you or someone you love.

In that case, one wants to avoid the kind of opening up to the world that reading threatens. One wants to close it off and prevent it. One wants a dimmer switch. One wants crosswords or sudoku to block out thought. It can serve a consolatory function, like religion.

I was reminded of one of my favorite compressed expressions of despair, from the great 17th-century prose stylist Sir Thomas Browne: “For the world, I count it not an Inne, but an Hospitall …” And it’s true that this world is not an “Inne” but a Starbucks of Tears, and sometimes, I admit, I wish I could understand the rules of sudoku.