Sunday, October 26, 2008

Review - Four-Letter Words

I am an inveterate puzzler. I'm not a big fan of Sudoku, though anything that gets people thinking about numbers, even if it doesn't lead to an uptick in true math appreciation, is OK by me. I've enjoyed crosswords since I was a kid; I don't buy many crosswords magazines because I find the easy, medium, and many of the hard ones too easy, and the miser within me has trouble leaving 70% of a puzzle magazine blank. There have been periodic attempts at newsletters that publish only difficult crosswords, but none that I've seen have had staying power.

Michelle Arnot, crossword creator and editor, has written a new book titled Four-Letter Words: And Other Secrets of a Crossword Insider (2008). It's a curious work, kind of an OLIO of topics about crosswords, none delved into with much depth, all built around the four-letter words that appear regularly in puzzles (if in few other places). There's a smattering of history, a mention of contests (but nothing so entertaining as the documentary film Wordplay), some excursions into three-letter words, but the bulk of the book deals with such stalwarts as EBAN and EDER, GAGA and HULA, NEVA and RANI.

The book is not without its charm, as there are brief definitions (and the occasional short anecdote) about many of these words that are necessary to fill out troublesome spots in diagrams. There are probably some solvers who have learned that the clue "Chaplin wife" is filled in with OONA without learning anything about Eugene O'Neill's young daughter.

For experienced solvers, however, this book rapidly descends into stasis. The trick comes in finding something of interest while wading through this small volume's dissection of, for example, who Anita LOOS was; if you already know it, you're going to want to move on quickly. But that takes you to AYN RAND, so, again, if you're well-read, you're wasting your time. And I don't know how much a neophyte, or TYRO, is going to get out of this. The way you learn this crosswordese is by doing crosswords, not so much by reading through a book.

I, and I accept that I may be an exception here, thought this book should actually be longer than its 211 pages. Had the lengthy list of words been supplemented by more of Arnot's experience, by more history and solving tips and stories of competition, I could have glided by the words. It's not at all a bad book, it just really didn't do much for me. If you are new to the world of crosswords, this is an excellent introduction (though I still think the long chapters of words will be eye-glazing). If you've lived with crosswords for years, it will probably not be as valuable.

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