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.