The Riddles of the Sphinx: Inheriting the Feminist History of the Crossword Puzzle

HarperOne. Mar. 2024. 288p. ISBN 9780063275478. $29.99. MEMOIR
For those who have ever wondered why early New York Times crosswords shied away from words such as “enema,” Shechtman's book has the answer. (Margaret Farrar, the crossword editor from 1942 to 1968, believed puzzles should activate minds, not bodies.) That dichotomy of body and brain gives Shechtman (a crossword maker in her own right) a fascinating framework for discussing her own story of anorexia, which she astutely describes as a desire for structure and control, analogous to the crossword’s rigid format. Her investigation of the sociocultural history of crosswords delves into women’s search for meaning and control in a world that often denies them access to both. She uncovers the major crossword contributions made by Farrar, Ruth Hale, Julia Penelope, and Ruth Franc Von Phul, whose puzzles became favorite mental health tools for many.
VERDICT As a gripping study sprinkled with puns and puzzles, this book encompasses the reasoning behind Shechtman’s own search for meaning while describing the constraints and histories of women who changed the narrative about wordplay. The book also soundly cracks the code for feminists puzzling over how wordplay fits into gender politics.
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