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Alex Beam

Are crosswords killing America?

Adobe/globe staff illustration

A spectre is haunting the United States — the spectre of crosswords.

This seemingly innocent pastime is spreading like kudzu throughout the American media world. About a year ago, the lordly New Yorker magazine launched a weekly crossword, with clues that only a Bard graduate could love, e.g., “Field for Kristeva and Barthes.” Answer: semiotics.

Not to be outdone, the venerable Atlantic magazine riposted with a daily crossword offering by Caleb Madison, the enfant terrible of Crossworld, who smuggled the phrase “Go Commando” into a New York Times puzzle last year. (Clue: “Leave one’s drawers in the drawer, say.”)

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Coming online next week: Inkubator, a Concord, N.H., bimonthly crossword subscription by women (and “women-aligned”) constructors. Inkubator follows two 2018 puzzle debuts, Patti Varol’s Women of Letters crossword package, and Queer Qrosswords, a donor-supported package of 22 LGBT-themed puzzles. (QQ just announced a second package.)

Just a few days ago, the Times, which I call “the culinary-crossword conglomerate,” in tribute to its successful monetization of puzzles and cooking content, published a Sunday supplement containing four — count ’em, four — crosswords. The section featured a cruciverbalist Big Gulp, a 90 x 90 grid, as opposed to the Times’s daily 15 x 15 grid, assembled by Boston’s Own Brendan Emmett Quigley, once credited with “making the New York Times crossword hip.”

One could argue that the florescence of crosswords is a good thing. But is it? In a memorable anti-“puzzle people” screed, Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum decried the “self-congratulatory assumption . . . 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 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.”

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Puzzle fan and decorated actor John Lithgow agrees. Appearing on the Jimmy Fallon show after co-constructing a Times crossword with Quigley, Lithgow admitted, “You’re always a little embarrassed to even confess that you do them because it’s such a pointless waste of time. . . . What a waste of life!”

Are crosswords killing America? Let’s do the math. It took me about an hour to finish one quadrant of Quigley’s 90 x 90 puzzle, thus four hours had I finished. (This leaves out the countless hours I would have spent solving, or failing to solve, the puzzle’s “meta” puzzle, which I ignored.) The Times prints about one million Sunday papers — this puzzle was print-only — and let’s guesstimate that 1 in 10 readers figures among Rosenbaum’s reviled “puzzle people.”

So, rounding for time wasted on the meta-puzzle, that is 500,000 person-hours, or about 275 person-years, of wasted productivity for the American economy. On just one puzzle! Now think about the collective time sumps of daily puzzles in every major American newspaper — the mind boggles.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, US productivity is half of what it was after World War II, and — MAGA-jabber notwithstanding — has become completely stagnant. Now we know why – crossword mania!

Invited to comment on the Crossword Crisis, the Times’s puzzle editor Will Shortz waxed lighthearted: “As a crossword editor, I basically play all day, and I’d like to bring that same sense of playfulness to as many other people as possible. The public consequences be damned!”

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And you ask why I fear for the Republic.

Forget about crosswords killing America – crosswords are killing me! Clue: “Relatives of kingfishers;” nine letters. I’ll never solve this.

And so dies the American dream, one tiny, unfilled square at a time.


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.