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'Crossword Century' an elegant ode to puzzles; captures charm that solvers will appreciate

"The Crossword Century: 100 Years of Witty Wordplay, Ingenious Puzzles, and Linguistic Mischief" (Gotham Books), by Alan Connor

If you love solving crosswords, you know how it feels to be in the fraternity. There's the rush of matching wits with a mysterious puzzle-maker, the thrill of nailing an elusive answer and the satisfaction of filling in the final square.

There's a charm in playing the game, a charm that can be hard to describe. But Alan Connor, a British quizmaster who writes a column on crosswords for the Guardian newspaper, is more than up to the challenge.

Connor is the author of "The Crossword Century: 100 Years of Witty Wordplay, Ingenious Puzzles, and Linguistic Mischief." The book details the history and evolution of crosswords since the first one appeared in 1913. But what makes it such a fun read is Connor's evident passion for all things crossword.

"The moments you spend in a puzzle have the potential to shut out the outside world for a blessedly silent period," he says. "You return refreshed from a happier place."

Indeed. Solvers recognize that feeling, but it's nice to be reassured that others share our appreciation. Crosswords are largely a solitary affair, so it's easy to lose sight of how many others share our bond.

Connor traces the history of crosswords across newspapers and Hollywood. But his deeper message is when he preaches charmingly to the choir, reaffirming to crossword fans without a hint of smugness why their obsession feels so satisfying.

He clearly relishes the ambiguity of the English language, as when he recounts clues such as "Die of cold?" for ICE CUBE.

He also appreciates the choreography between the puzzle creator and solver.

"Yes, the constructor is aiming to lose gracefully and intends you to decrypt every clue," he notes. "But that doesn't mean the crossword should simply crumble before the novice. There has to be a degree of bloodshed."

One of the most interesting chapters is his paean to one of the most famous puzzles of all: a 1996 New York Times gem in which the solver is asked what the next day's headline will be. The answer was designed so the intersecting letters could spell either CLINTONELECTED or BOBDOLEELECTED.

While Connor spends plenty of ink appreciating the crossword, he also devotes several chapters to its British cousin, the cryptic. He tries to teach readers how to decipher a cryptic's maddening clues — with limited luck.

For example, we're supposed to recognize that the answer to "Strange I should tan poorly" is OUTLANDISH, an anagram of "I should tan." Seriously?

Despite Connor's best efforts, he may not inspire many crossword fans to tackle cryptics. But with his short chapters and crisp, elegant writing he does give them a fresh appreciation for their crossword obsession.

"To tackle a crossword is to enjoy the experience of your brain pulling on many different areas simultaneously, working in a way that everyday life rarely calls for," he says.

Crossword lovers will certainly relate.

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