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Puzzling

BY COLIN GILBERT | JULY 08, 2009 7:21 AM

I hate Sudoku. I’m using the word “hate” about a logic-puzzle game, but I do hate it. More than the puzzle itself, I hate how taken people are with it, that from airplane passengers to day-to-day enthusiasts, it is lauded and loved. (On the scale of human cruelty and indignity, this seems a small worry, I know). I used to think poorly of airport paperbacks, the kind of overpriced trash only a bored and insomniac businessman would buy on his way through Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental terminal. I have since revised this judgment, not just because I, too, have bought trash books at 11 at night to tide a layover, but because hell, they’re books. They are stories with characters and ideas, and the simple interactive joy of comprehending a sentence is far more worthy of my time than the cold purity of Sudoku. Why? Because it takes interpretation. Because it’s impure and flawed and more concerned with playing with its substance than whatever crystalline number-locking happens in languageless media. It is human. That’s why I work the crossword.

I didn’t get into crosswords until a few years ago. I’d seen my grandmother work through them day after day during the summers I spent at her house in Tennessee, numerous local newspapers spread across the breakfast table. It didn’t occur to me how amazing it was that she could finish the Friday puzzle on her own in an hour or so. It does now. It’s incredible that it took me so long to start in on them, but now that I have it’s a necessary part of every day. Coffee at the Tobacco Bowl, too many cigarettes, and the New York Times puzzle reprinted in this paper. Will Shortz has one of the most interesting jobs I could imagine.

I once tried to create a crossword. “Cruciverbalism” is what it’s called, and it was an exercise I used as a very bad gimmick of the very bad short story I was working on. The premise still sounds pretty neat to me, though: a war between rival cruciverbalists who imbed their puzzles with jibes and insults. The ability to not only construct these interlocking word structures but control them in a deliberate way to convey puzzle-wide and clue-specific meaning is just plain cool, and that there are people out there who possess this ability astounds me. The blend and degree of mental order and mental play that has to happen — honestly, I am in awe.

I find myself clinging to philosophies that embrace human pattern but recognize that it’s all invented. From this get-go, I want to say that I have no real education in philosophy or its explorers, I’m simply reading things of which some resonate with me. I think existentialism is close to how I operate, but again, I’m not well-read enough to claim this with any reliability. What I mean is that life, human life, because of the strange phenomenon known as consciousness, is absolutely a filtered version of the world we live in. Think about this — our only means of interacting with, and therefore understanding, our reality is through a handful of very limited sensory receptors. Does smell even exist? No, it’s just particles of objects let to float on air, and we have membranes capable of interpreting their source and substance. Smell, any sense from sight to hearing to equilibrium, is informative to the creatures that developed them, but it is not a fundamental of reality (please don’t roll your eyes, I’m groping here). The same with what we poor cripples of evolution’s experiments consider “important,” things such as love and honor, individuality, creativity and obligation. We invent systems of value and connection, and defend them as if they were firm property. Which is exactly what’s so fascinating about people, and the flawed creation known as language, and the games we’ve come up with to manipulate it.

Sudoku stands in opposition to this. It is logic without play, every answer as set as a crossword but lacking leaps of intuition, fumbled-for understanding. It’s like the difference between appreciating a fantastically complex machine-works against the tumble of symbolism in a Bosch painting; it is structure minus substance. To hell with Sudoku.


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