Thinking Inside The Box, by Adrienne Raphel
We were in the Upstate last week for a swimming competition, and between events, roamed downtown looking for a place to eat. Instead, we found a lovely bookstore inside a regal stone building – as all bookstores should be – and had quite a time.
Wandering and flipping pages, I finally found myself in the backroom of the store, filled mostly with blank journals and notebooks. A youngish girl was stationed there – they’re all youngish now – alone at a desk, sitting near a computer and surveying the room. Without a register, I wondered what she did and asked her. I’m kind of nosey like that.
“Ah,” she said, “most of our customers are at risk, and I help them if they need it.”
I must have looked confused, so she continued.
“I help mostly homeless people use the Internet and email and, if they need it, I can direct them to any aid they need.” She smiled, and multicolored sun rays shone through the window, wrapping around her like a halo. Angels might have sung.
I was impressed. it’s one thing to yell through a megaphone about what other people ought to do, but here is a for-profit business, selling real goods for real money, who hired someone specifically to help people who probably don’t pay a thing.
Voting with dollars
When I went into the store, I didn’t plan to buy anything, but now, I had to, voting with my feet and dollars for what I wish more people and businesses did. I picked up a bright yellow book titled Thinking Inside The Box, by Adrienne Raphel, and this was it. Subtitled, Adventures with Crosswords, I scanned the first few pages, and they looked interesting. Besides, I love a crossword as much as the next wordster.
Regular readers know that I’m reluctant to say anything untoward about another author, but, well, this is an odd little volume and I wondered if the author is so synced with poetry and crosswords that she speaks only in hints. It must make for an interesting conversation at dinner.
Truth be told, I was taken by the first chapters where she explains the early history of the crossword. It’s fascinating that what started out as a newspaper filler became a craze that still exists. From this simple history though, the author ventures in fits and starts into other arcana. Some is interesting, and some is…arcane. My interest waned through the mibookddle section, and through to the end, and, well, what’s a book but a beginning, a middle, and an end?
The worst book ever? Naw…
Most readers rate the book well, though a cadre of puzzlers and readers found it maddeningly unreadable and horrible: maybe the worst book ever, they say. But the prose is good – the author is a poet and writer with a whole lot of letters behind her name, and it shows.
The book isn’t a long-form treatment of puzzling history and doing crosswords, which I think readers might expect. It’s more of an “Adventure with crosswords and the puzzling people who can’t live without them.“ See that? See how people who do crosswords are puzzling people? This type of wordplay irritates – really irritates – several reviewers. I think it’s kind of fun.
The book isn’t only about doing crosswords. It’s about making crosswords, figures in the world of puzzles, and Will Shortz.
There’s much to like here, and the author scampers with abandon down a dozen trails. I settled into reading the book in pieces, a few pages or a chapter at a time, but not as one single gulp. And truthfully, I can’t imagine a reader enjoying the book if they find crosswords a bore.
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