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.
- Low Islands
- Baseballer Matty or Felipe
- Prune, formerly
- Highly ornamented style
- 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.