Most people wouldn't think of saving old crossword puzzle books. You use them up; toss them out, the ultimate disposable product. But to National Public Radio Puzzle Master and New York Times Crossword editor Will Shortz, the relatively short history of the crossword's evolution is spelled out in these editions. The crossword holds a rightful place as a collectible item.
He has, by his own count, somewhere around 20,000 volumes that trace the puzzle history and development from its inception in 1913 when journalist Arthur Wynne from Liverpool inserted the first puzzle into the New York World. This launched a long-lived fad of faithful followers. Later, in 1924, the crossword's continuing popularity was demonstrated when two new publishers, Simon and Schuster, launched their venture with the world's first crossword puzzle book. More than 300,000 novelty books with a pencil attached were sold.
The love of crossword segued into a tile game for architect Alfred Butts in the 1930's. This eventually led to what became one of the world's best-loved board games-scrabble.
According to Shortz, the puzzle's popularity remains strong. As one of the founders of the Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held in Stamford, CT every year, the 51-year-old enigmatologist cites a 60% increase in participants over the last two years. A part of its current popularity may stem from its best-known spokesman. Shortz is a friendly, approachable sort who clearly enjoys his work and approaches the art of puzzling with a mix of humor and seriousness.
When describing his collection of books, Shortz believes the most valuable is the Simon and Schuster number one. "That series continues today," he says. "They're up to vol. 234 and have had a number of editors." He has all but two, needing numbers 84 & 86 to complete the series. He explains that up until series 75 in the early 1950's, they were hardcover and consequently easier to find. The spiral binding the publisher turned to has a disposable quality that contributed to the scarcity of later editions. In one of the many articles about Shortz, the author states the cream of the collection is Wynne's first puzzle; the only copy held in private hands.
And if the most valuable is number 1, Shortz's immediate opinion is that the least collectible is the Giant series of the 30's and 40's because they're plentiful and bland. Upon reflection he changed that to, "Any crossword book that does not give bylines to the crossword constructors is probably not worth collecting." This shortcoming, he explains, applies to the Giant series and others. According to Shortz, bylines attached to a crossword puzzle indicate that the book "is more apt to be concerned with quality, so it's more likely to entertain. Also, individual puzzle makers' styles vary, so discerning solvers "want" to know who made each puzzle."
The evolution of crossword puzzles can also be seen through the style of the editors. With the Times, the first editor Margaret Farrar had puzzles increase in difficulty with each day of the week. Ten years ago Shortz added by-lines to the daily puzzles and broadened the range of difficulty throughout the week, consequently broadening the audience. He is prolific by any standards. Aside from the weekly radio program and the crossword duties at the Times, Shorts has written 23 books of his own, founded and directs the national tournament, and founded the World Puzzle Championship. He also serves as captain of the US team. Prior to his decade at the Times, Shortz edited Games magazine for 15 years.
Today's crossword audience is 50 million strong. Most American papers would be incomplete without one. Whether you do it alone or with friends, it's a pastime that leaves you feeling good - especially if you solve the puzzle (and more so if you solve it in ink!)
Shortz delights in studying the development of this craft. "I'm a puzzle historian," monitoring the "changes in style and construction, bylines, and puzzle grids." In a recent article, Shortz describes his collection as expanding beyond the boundaries of crossword books to contain such novelties as Crossword quilts, vanity plates, advertisements, photos and articles. The most unusual addition is the Williams Crossword pinball game he keeps in his basement.
Crossword puzzles cross over to various other collectible areas: puzzle printed dresses, songs, jewelry, advertisements, magazines, not to mention the various and sundry crossword reference dictionaries.
This past week on eBay, more than 7 pages were filled with items relating to crossword: ties, crossword maker software, jigsaw puzzles with crossword themes, NYT Crossword Champion watch, Partridge Family and Agatha Christie crossword books, and games (Kan U Go crossword card game and Keyword Crossword, a 1953 Parker Bros. Game). My favorite item was the Felix the Cat playing crossword pin.
The whimsy of Shortz's own collection reflects his respect for humor. He admits that his readers, like himself, respond best to funnier themes. "People connect with puzzles that make them laugh."
The home page of the Annual American Puzzle Tournament is a good indication of the approachable quality and sense of humor Shortz maintains with friends and fans. Smack dab below the photo of the Tournament founder is a puzzle portrait constructed by Ken Knowlton and made into a workable puzzle by Frank Longo.
If you'd like to try your hand at one designed for AuctionBytes readers, try Robin Baker's "author's" crossword. http://www.auctionbytes.com/crossword/cwauthors.html
If that doesn't suit, try developing your own! http://www.greeneclipsesoftware.com/eclipsecrossword