Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hating on Crosswords

Here's an article in Slate that's destined to get a ton of hate mail: Crossword, Sudoku Plague Threatens America! by Ron Rosenbaum.

Here's a taste:

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.

My guess is that the people who do crosswords also tend to read a lot more than the average person, though this would be interesting to know for sure. You can't do the tougher crosswords without having a pretty broad knowledge base, which you get...from reading. I don't think most crossword puzzlers glorify themselves the way Rosenbaum is suggesting they do. I don't think any of them would compare getting a clue about Madame Bovary to actually reading the book. But I don't think they'd say it's a horrible waste of time and energy.

The better crosswords involve interesting wordplay and a fair amount of induction. You test your abilities to recall knowledge based on (hopefully) clever clues and what knowledge you have about the word from the space it fits in and any other letters you might know. If the clue is a past-tense verb, like "ate a whole sandwich," you can probably assume that the answer ends in -ed, but it might not if it is also irregular. But part of the fun is provisionally filling in something like the end of a word or a reasonably guess and seeing how well it fits with the rest of the neighboring answers.

I'm generally not a big fan of trivia, but I do appreciate the better clues on shows like Jeopardy where the knowledge is not just regurgitated, but filtered through a puzzle or pun. Does this put puzzling on par with reading? No. It's different. But in some cases, yeah, puzzling is superior to reading. Working out the Friday NYT crossword is a lot more challenging than reading a lot of the stuff on the bestseller list.

I would also guess that crossword puzzlers are less susceptible to the effects of aging on the brain from conditions such as Alzhiemer's and Parkinsons, though again, I don't think such data exists. My guess is that any mental activity that is relatively stimulating and engages long-term memory processes is generally beneficial.

But Rosenbaum, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, goes on for three pages with stuff like this:

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!

Ah, the old "why don't they do something really important?" What about jogging? Isn't that a huge waste of time? Or watching TV or browsing the internet? There's a lot of other lower-hanging fruit than crosswords to criticize.

He also distinguishes crosswords from games like Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit, which he argues at least foster social interaction. I guess he's never had the fun of working on a crossword with somebody else...poor goober. And even if most crosswords are done in private, is he going to criticize people for doing yoga or meditating or...reading in private?

This guy's a douche, but I think it's kind of deliberate. What's a 4-letter word for "intentionally provoke"? If that was his intent, I fell into his trap. But I couldn't help myself.

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