What do Stephen King, Nancy Pelosi, Sting, Martha Stewart and Jon Stewart have in common?
They’re all cruciverbalists—that is, crossword fans. The ever-popular puzzle first appeared seemingly by accident in 1913, when Arthur Wynne introduced a new amusement because he had space to fill in the Christmas edition of the New York World newspaper. He called it a “Word-Cross Puzzle.” A transposing typo two weeks later called a subsequent brainteaser a “Cross-Word,” and the name stuck.
Adrienne Raphel takes readers on a deep lexical dive into the history and culture surrounding the beloved linguistic sport in Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures With Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them. Her enthusiastic account will appeal to all sorts of puzzle and word lovers, even those who are just dabblers. (Raphel calls herself a “hunt-and-peck” solver, admitting that she’s more of a Boggle fanatic.)
In lively chapters, Raphel constructs her own puzzle and submits it to the New York Times (no spoilers here on whether it’s accepted), visits fabled Times puzzle master Will Shortz, reports on a crossword puzzle tournament, delves into the puzzle’s history and evolution and crosses the Atlantic on a themed trip aboard the Queen Mary 2 celebrating the 75th anniversary of the New York Times crossword, which first appeared in 1942.
Ironically, the Times long resisted printing these puzzles, proclaiming in 1925, “The craze evidently is dying out fast and in a few months it will be forgotten.” There’s plenty of intriguing history there, and some of the most fascinating discussions involve puzzle-related issues of gender, race and class. As Raphel points out, “The crossword is black and white, but it’s very, very white. This monoculture seeps into the types of clues that appear in the puzzle, and the way that words get clued.” Happily, there are signs of progress, with the author noting that crosswords are becoming “increasingly woke.”
Raphel certainly knows how to write, coming up with sentences like, “The fifty-two-story New York Times skyscraper rises out of the grid of midtown Manhattan like a steel fantasy of a crossword, a study in squares and frosted glass.” At times the book is uneven, however, with certain chapters more engaging than others. Nonetheless, Thinking Inside the Box offers a unique crossword puzzle tour that will likely have you sharpening your pencil by book’s end.