Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them

Penguin Pr. Mar. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9780525522089. $28. LIT
Investigating the crossword from all sides is poet Raphel’s (What Was It For) stated goal, and she means it, giving depth to a two-dimensional puzzle. Covering the basic history, cultural context, and ongoing evolution of the crossword, the author explains the construction of a puzzle and what makes it work. While John Halpern’s The History of the Crossword covers similar ground (albeit from a British perspective), Raphel takes a more holistic approach. This examination results in surprisingly lively material, studying the cultures of the puzzlers and the puzzle constructors alike. The book as a whole is fascinating, but Raphel is particularly good at shifting viewpoints. More offbeat chapters, such as “This Is Not a Crossword,” looking at the intersection between surrealism and crosswords, fairly sing. (The ending material, about a crossword cruise, loses some steam, but this is a minor quibble.)
VERDICT Raphel’s approach is reminiscent of Mary Roach’s work, and even cruciverbalists well versed in their hobby’s history will discover something illuminating here. Nonpuzzling readers may discover a new hobby.
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