March 2024

The Riddles of the Sphinx

By Anna Shechtman
Review by
Celebrated feminist crossword creator Anna Shechtman explores the cultural history of the crossword puzzle in relation to her own life.
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It is difficult to categorize Anna Shechtman’s The Riddles of the Sphinx: Inheriting the Feminist History of the Crossword Puzzle. In the book, Shechtman, a celebrated feminist and crossword constructor for The New Yorker, recounts her years with anorexia and her recovery. She details the history of the crossword puzzle, in particular the role women played not only in popularizing crossword puzzles, but also in developing them. Shechtman explains and explores how academic feminists create a new vocabulary for women that is free of gender stereotypes. Finally, she argues eloquently that the definition of “crossword-worthy clues” should be more diverse, allowing for a broader range of clues that a general audience stands a chance at solving. But it’s not purely a memoir, history, scholarly tract or manifesto.

Instead, The Riddles of the Sphinx resembles the best themed crosswords: paradoxical puzzles that are simultaneously rigid and relational, entertaining and educational. Themed crosswords explore the relationship between highlighted clues, and can reveal surprising links between them.

Shechtman’s book is similarly well-crafted and tightly structured. There are four themes, much like the traditional crossword has four quadrants: the links between the strict rules of crosswords and anorexia; the role of wordplay in developing a feminist language; the outsize role of white men in puzzle construction; and, finally, the crossword as the emblem of Shechtman’s development as a patient, an intellectual and a social being. The last of these gives the work its power and humanity. When her anorexia was at its worst, Shechtman constructed puzzles. Their rules reflected and affirmed the rigidity imposed on her by her illness, but also isolated her from others and herself. Shechtman’s healing only began when she was able to form relationships with other women in treatment. It is these relationships that bring healing, meaning and relevance—not only to the puzzle, but to our lives.

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The Riddles of the Sphinx

The Riddles of the Sphinx

By Anna Shechtman
ISBN 9780063275478

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