That’s a personal question, of course, but I have a scientific way of determining which crosswords are memorable to me, and I’ve been thinking about what that means for the art form.
I’ve been solving crosswords for years but until recently, I wasn’t a particularly careful observer. Puzzles came and went, I could complete them or not, they were blasé, satisfying, or delightful. It wasn’t until five years ago when I wrote XWord Info that I started examining them more closely. As I added more and more to my database, starting from present time and working backwards, it was a chance to relive the crossword part of my life in Benjamin Button order. I was an archeologist going backwards through time as I dug through the strata of grids and clues.
Now and then I’d hit a puzzle that gave me a flash of excitement, a rush of reminiscence. That was a fun one. I remember that one! By definition, that one was memorable.
I started noticing patterns. The first was that so many of the ones I particularly recalled were by Manny Noswosky. That caused me to look more closely at those constructor names and I soon discovered several more with more than their fair share in the “memorable” pile. Elizabeth C. Gorski’s year-end Sundays were a treat I looked forward to rediscovering. I had memorized the poem in Green Eggs and Hamlet and it became a kind of party trick.
There are many recent crosswords I’m sure I’ll long remember too: Picture This delighted me because I love the story behind that painting. (Maybe I just like art because Ahead of the Curve also stands out.) Joe Krozel’s LIES, and especially his mirror grid thrilled me. I’ll remember the snappy surprising answers from so many Paula Gamache or Karen M. Tracey puzzles, the beautiful grids of Frank Longo or my friend Jeff Chen, and many more for a long time. I’ve called Patrick Berry’s “Cross” word contest the best word puzzle I’ve ever done.
What these have in common is an adventurous and surprising spirit. They make me wonder how someone thought of it. They expand my idea of what is possible to accomplish in a crossword.
There’s something that these puzzles don’t have, though. Most are missing the single ingredient that most crossword commentary (including emails I get) focuses on. They’re lacking in, for want of a better word, flawlessness. (I’ll admit Mr. Berry’s comes close.)
I’ve fallen behind in my blog reading but these are the kinds of puzzles that generally are not well reviewed. I remember commenters on Wordplay often targeted what they perceived to be the weak spot, an answer perceived to be inelegant, and disdainfully proclaimed that the whole experience was wrecked. I’ve accepted the facts that 1) I’ll never understand this, and 2) I’m in a tiny minority of people whose endorphin levels are much more highly calibrated to the ingeniousness of the breakthrough idea. Aim for the stars and if you get most of the way there, I’m a fan. A perfect jewel-box of a traditional puzzle can be satisfying but it’s not nearly the same kick. In particular, I won’t remember it years later. Give me the Thursday craziness, the fold spindle and mutilate, the thinking outside the box. Surprise me.
Thanks to the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, I’m continuing to retreat further in time, back to 1990 now. The April 1 puzzle that year, “Please Think Twice!” was by Bert H. Kruse, a frequent contributor in those days, and I remember it. That’s way before NYT began making Across Lite versions of puzzles but you can try solving it online here. Maybe, like me, you’ll remember it, or at least you’ll see why it’s memorable. It’s not easy, mostly because the clues are both non-contemporary and Maleska-style (thank-you-MAAM is a road bump), but perhaps you can at least get through enough to find the Aha Moment. If you’re impatient, you can skip to the answers.