Following a brief, ill-fated fling with solemnity following Sept. 11, America recommitted itself to the frivolous pursuit of fun and games, from the avalanche of poker-themed TV shows to the emergence of Scrabble-themed books and documentaries. Now the crossword puzzle, Scrabble's pocket-protector-sporting word-nerd sibling, receives the star treatment in Marc Romano's Crossworld, a gushing valentine to crossword fanatics and the elite, highly underpaid band of constructors who provide them with their daily fix.
The book begins with a thumbnail history of the crossword and its more whimsical, pun-and-wordplay-laden English variation, the cryptic, along with brief biographies of its pioneers and an entertaining detour into the crossword fad of the 1920s. But the meat of the book follows closely in the footsteps of James McManus' wildly successful poker memoir Positively Fifth Street, with Romano, like McManus, participating in a big national tournament he's covering. But McManus famously emerged out of nowhere as a bona fide contender, giving his book an element of suspense and excitement that Crossworld lacks. Romano concedes that the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament—as New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz suggests—would be agonizingly dull TV, but he doesn't seem to realize that reading about crossword-solving is only marginally less dull.
Romano praises crossword aficionados for their curiosity about the world around them, but displays precious little curiosity himself. Crosswords are generally a solitary, internal endeavor, so even at a big tournament teeming with enthusiasts, Crosswords spends a lot of time rattling around inside Romano's big old brain, which is full of fancy, fluttering words but is nevertheless kind of boring. It doesn't help that Romano is the kind of self-satisfied brainiac who can't help but mention that he re-reads Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow every two years for fun—the title pops up no less than four times. Romano seems obsessed with puzzling heavyweights Shortz (whom Romano stops just short of nominating for living sainthood, which may explain Shortz's glowing blurb on the front cover) and iconoclastic young prodigy Brendan Emmett Quigley, yet he barely breaks the surface of their personalities. Crossworld aspires to welcome outsiders into the wonderful world of crossword puzzles, but succeeds only in scaring newbies and novices away with its tedious compendium of trivia, minutiae, and grating self-absorption.