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The Uncertain Fate of Crosswords


With newspapers dying, crossword puzzles might not be far behind. Do we care?

I have been worrying about crossword puzzles. I accept the slow death of the printed newspaper as inevitable, and believe we will find news in new places and formats. But what about crossword puzzles? Are they print-based, and thus doomed? Should we fight to preserve them? Do they really make us smarter?The crossword puzzle was born in a newspaper (the world's first crossword was diagonal-you can see it here). It was invented by Arthur Wynne, a journalist, in 1913. By the 1920s, most American newspapers carried crossword puzzles.Like Sudoku in the noughts, crossword puzzles were the rage in the 1920s. The New York Public Library reported that people were flocking to dictionaries and encyclopedias to look up clues. In 1924, Simon and Schuster published the first, and incredibly popular, crossword puzzle book. Then the predictable backlash began, with the New York Times, Time magazine, and others lamenting how much time people were wasting on this frivolous game. (The New York Times was one of the last American papers to print a daily crossword-they refused to include this "sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words" until 1942.)Today, most consider crossword puzzle dexterity a sign of intellectual prowess. "How far did you get in last week's New York Times Sunday crossword?" is a question as loaded with cultured competitiveness as "How far did you get in Remembrance of Things Past?". In 1978, Will Shortz founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (also featured in the 2006 documentary, Word Play.) Shortz and others popularized the idea that doing crossword puzzles stimulates the brain, and may offset Alzheimers. Doctors began prescribing crosswords to aging patients to help offset dementia.But some are skeptical that filling letters into boxes makes you smarter. Dean Olsher, a lifelong crossword puzzler, thinks of them "as a habit-like smoking." Olsher, author of From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords, quips that "On the one hand ... we think that [crossword puzzles] are helpful when it comes to mental health….But then the flip side of that is that they may be just the opposite; maybe crosswords are not only not going to keep us from getting Alzheimer's ... but may in fact be its own form of mental illness." Olsher finds no medical evidence that doing puzzles makes you smarter. (He, though, is clearly very smart, and funny, and his book is well-worth a read).So we have a game that was always associated with newspapers, that is for some a mental workout and for others as unhealthy as a smoke break. Of course we can come up with digital ways to do crossword puzzles, and we have, but should we? Or are crossword puzzles like, say, pinball, a game that will be eclipsed by new ones with fancier bells and whistles, and makes more sense for the digital news delivery device soon to come?
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