When I was a child, I was absolutely stupefied by my father’s ability to complete the New York Times Sunday crossword. Mind you, he was not a competitive puzzler, one of those types today who now bundle themselves off every end of February to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which, after 30 years at the Marriott Stamford in Connecticut, was held for the first time ever at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott.
Puzzling as a sport was not a feature of my father’s love of the crossword. He enjoyed them thoroughly, but there was no fanaticism in his play, and thus neither stopwatches nor blasts of indignation at seemingly disingenuous clues or specious puns. He was a cruciverbalist—the technical moniker for the habitual crossword solver—in the most traditional of senses, at his leisure or on a lunch break. Moreover, he liked doing them in ink and all caps—both no-no’s according to Stanley Newman in his Cruciverbalism: A Crossword Fanatic’s Guide to Life in the Grid, a lovely little hardcover I picked up while combing the shelves of the Goodwill on Dixwell Avenue in Hamden.
Stanley Newman is the puzzle editor for New York Newsday and this short paean to the crossword, co-authored with Mark Lasswell, is a fascinating little contribution to puzzle lore that at an easily perused 160 pages is entirely worth reading by anyone who enjoys crosswords. Take me, for example. I like crossword puzzles, and even though I’m not nearly as capable as my father, I relish the qualities of its particular type of challenge: the puns and the trivia, the small victories and epiphanies in lateral thinking that spring from that part of your unconscious where facts you thought lost still roost .
Newman covers several topics in his little tome: how he went from bond businessman to crossword puzzle guru; the history of the crossword (which is how publishing giant Simon & Schuster made its first real money); the ways in which puzzle editors and constructors go about the daily grind of producing their wares; some general principles for solving puzzles; and sundry other matters. But what caught my interest were the very first pages, where he holds forth on his outright distaste for New York Times puzzle editor Eugene T. Maleska and reviews the war he started with him and the New York Times over the state of the crossword.
This is no doubt where his co-author came in, suggesting, “Look, if we’re going to hook general readers first and fans second, let’s begin with a pie fight, because everyone loves a pie fight.” And I must admit, I do like pie fights, especially when they take on bathetic proportions, making mountains of molehills, the truest sign of passion.
When Newman was a bond trader, he started a newsletter about the crossword business in which, among other things, he regularly took to task Maleska’s penchant for publishing puzzles that depended on overly obscure geographical locations, an unhealthy interest in opera, an utter distaste for popular culture, and a schoolmarmish predilection for Latin phrases (Maleska had been a Latin teacher before replacing the much-beloved Will Weng as the crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times). Newman was convinced that Maleska’s role doubly damaged the state of the crossword: for puzzle solvers, his stiffness dampened the interest of the next generation, while for constructors his perch at the Gray Lady overshadowed the innovativeness of their work at other papers. In brief, Maleska was giving cruciverbalism a bad name.
And yet whatever pleasures pie fights may present, what most endeared this reader to Newman’s tale is his belief—and demonstration by personal example—that old dogs can learn new tricks. Unlike many crossword enthusiasts, who tend to start young, either around high school or college, Newman himself became a crossword champion in his 30s! Before then he was not much better than your occasional cruciverbalist. But, as he suggests, with a little dedication and some zeal, it is possible for anyone—and he is emphatic about that anyone!—to become good at doing crosswords, regardless of age. And, that, in itself, sheds some light on the beauty of a book that illustrates how the ability to excel at some cerebral or artistic passion does not necessarily diminish with time. Think Grandma Moses with a paintbrush or Immanuel Kant publishing his first book at the age of 50!