Crossword, sudoku plague threatens America!

Scrutinizing culture.
Aug. 20 2008 11:49 AM

Crossword, Sudoku Plague Threatens America!

The puzzle of puzzle people.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Someone once said the world can be divided into two kinds of people: The kind who say "the world can be divided into two kinds of people" and the kind who don't.

I'm the first kind, a divider rather than a uniter, and this morning another two-kinds-of-people-in-the world bifurcation occurred to me: The world is divided between those who willingly waste precious moments, hours, weeks, years of life doing crosswords, double-crostics, sudoku, and other word and number puzzles—and those (like myself) who are virtually allergic to them. (The puzzles, not the people.)

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I'm not claiming any superiority for those who share my allergy. (Well, that's my story, anyway, and I'm sticking to it.) I just think our brains are wired differently. Really differently.

Try this experiment at a dinner party (if you want to ruin it). Mention a frequent obsession of puzzle people, the NPR "news quiz" show, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! (Or, as I call it, "Wait Wait ... Please Kill Me!") About half the attendees will exhibit violent, often physical reactions ranging from cringing to shuddering. Meanwhile, the other half will have sublime self-satisfied smiles. They sometimes get the answers before the guests! The show is so mentally stimulating!

What always gets to me is the self-congratulatory assumption on the part of puzzle people that their addiction to the useless habit somehow proves they are smarter or more literate than the rest of us. Need I suggest that those who spend time doing crossword puzzles (or sudoku)—uselessly filling empty boxes (a metaphor for some emptiness in their lives?)—could be doing something else that involves words and letters? It's called reading.

But somehow crossword types think that their addiction to this sad form of mental self-abuse somehow makes them "literary." Sorry: Doing puzzles reflects not an elevated literary sensibility but a degraded letter-ary sensibility, one that demonstrates an inability to find pleasure in reading. Otherwise, why choose the wan, sterile satisfactions of crosswords over the far more robust full-blooded pleasures of books?

But, again, let's try to take seriously the self-image of puzzle people as brainiacs. (Come on, try!) Isn't it a tragedy, then, a criminal shame, that all their amazing brainpower gets wasted on word games? If they're as smart as they think they are and there were some way to channel their alleged brainpower to something other than word games, we could cure cancer in a month!

Seriously, if their awesome problem-solving brainpower were somehow harvested like wind energy (maybe they could wear little beanies on their heads?) they could solve all the world's problems and have time left over to do an extra double-crostic.

Indeed, if all the scientists who are also puzzle people would put their puzzle time in service of humanity rather than Will Shortz (the New York Times guru), I bet there'd be a cure for at least a minor disease that real people are suffering from. OK, the beanies were a joke, but I see something like The Matrix, eventually (a crossword is a matrix, right?), where the brains of crossword types are harvested for their hyperactive but otherwise pointless synaptic flickering.

What are some of the other defenses of the puzzle people? "It trains the mind." No, sorry; it only trains the mind to think in a tragically limited and reductive fill-in-the boxes way. I'd say that instead it drains the mind. Drains it of creativity and imagination while fostering rat-in-a-maze skills.

But, alas, more and more people are succumbing to box-brain syndrome. Isn't it sad the way so many people who otherwise look normal have become sudoku zombies? Sudoku has been turning ordinary humans into pod people for less than a decade. It's grown so fast its depredations have flown beneath the radar of economic indices—its matrix has escaped our metrics—but I think a serious case can be made that the decline in the American economy can be blamed on the sapping of the mental energy and productivity of the American workforce that sudoku addiction alone has wrought. It's a terrible thing to behold: on commuter trains, in Starbucks, in offices, the Slaves of Sudoku hunched over their puzzle books, addicted to the mind-numbing hillbilly heroin of the white-collar class.

Just one indication of the scope and consequences of the epidemiclike spread of the puzzle-brain disorder: I just went down to my local Barnes & Noble megastore and found they had six full-sized floor-to-ceiling columns of shelves devoted to nothing but crossword-puzzle and sudoku books.

And I made another discovery: Nearly every major metropolitan daily newspaper puts out a line of crossword-puzzle books. None is as prolific as the Times and its crossover crossword-sudoku master, Mr. Shortz, but the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe each had their own row for their crossword puzzle collections.

It suddenly occurred to me that things must be even worse for the newspaper business than I had imagined. Crosswords and sudoku may be all that holds up the bottom line. Truly, the last days are upon us: People apparently now buy the newsprint editions only because you can do the puzzles in them.

You would think these newspapers might try to put together collections of their great reporting and photography. No, easier to cater to the crossword crazies. Penny-wise, pound-foolish. Newspapers sealed their fate once they let the anti-reading puzzles into their pages, and sudoku is the death knell. Pretty soon they're going to find their readership deserting them for the puzzle books. Forget the eight-part series on hunger in Appalachia.

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