In Nicholson Baker’s 2009 novel The Anthologist, the narrator and title character—a poet struggling to write the introduction to a collection he’s assembling—compares the pleasures of rhyming verse to those of a crossword puzzle. Rhyme, he posits, is “a powerful form of self-medication…the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next…You are solving a puzzle.”
This parallelism seems to strike Baker’s poet as fruitful, and he goes on:
It’s not a crossword puzzle—it’s better than a crossword puzzle, because you’re actually trying to do something beautiful. But it’s not unrelated. The addicts of crossword puzzles are also distracting themselves. They also don’t want to face the world’s grief head-on. They want that transient pleasure, endlessly repeated, of solving the Rubik’s Cube of verbal intersection. But has anyone ever wept at the beauty of a crossword puzzle? Maybe, maybe. I have not.
Baker is hardly the first to have drawn this comparison, and of course there are famous overlappers between the worlds of literature and puzzledom. Baker cites W. H. Auden; others include Georges Perec and Stephen Sondheim. But as crossword aficionados (OK, addicts) we couldn’t help but bristle a little on coming across this passage.
Sure, with a gun to our heads we would probably concede that a poem is “better” than a crossword puzzle, whatever “better” might happen to mean in that context. For one thing, a poem has multiple layers, and can be appreciated repeatedly. But the idea that a crossword isn’t, potentially at least, a thing of beauty is simply absurd.
What is beauty, after all? Depending on your esthetic framework, it could be symmetry, elegance, proportion—well, a crossword puzzle has all those. If you prefer the untamed wildness of the sublime, a puzzle can provide that as well. Keatsians will find that a crossword puzzle is full of truth, which is all we need to know.
Out of all these possibilities, Baker’s narrator chooses a very strange one indeed: the ability to induce weeping. Why should that be the criterion? (And yes, we have encountered crosswords that made us want to weep, though not at their beauty.) Surely the best crossword puzzles are those that offer their solvers a burst of pure pleasure—the surprising delight of wit, the excitement of human imagination and ingenuity at play. That’s where the joy and the beauty of puzzles are to be found.
This week’s cluing challenge: can you to come up with a cryptic clue for ANTHOLOGIST? Please share here. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.
And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle.