Why Writers Like Scrabble

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Post: Why Writers Like Scrabble / 19.01.08

Why Writers Like Scrabble

Judith Thurman writes in this week's New Yorker:
Scrabble is both mindless and cerebral, which may account for its appeal to writers—it gives you a chance to push words around without having to make them mean something.


Thurman's article, "Spreading the Word," is available online only to subscribers (the link above is to a summary, and doesn't at all convey the flavor of Thurman's writing).

There's a certain aptness there (or is it irony?), because the story is mostly about Scrabble's online revival and the copyright battle over Scrabulous, recently reborn as Lexulous.

So you'll have to buy or borrow a copy of the magazine, or subscribe to the digital edition, to read it. Not such a bad idea. Meanwhile, here's a passage I liked so much I copied it for you:

Scrabble is enjoying a second heyday. The first was in the early nineteen-fifties, when demand for sets outstripped production. (In 1954, an advertisement in this magazine showed a wedding party stampeding from a church; the bride explains to the baffled clergyman that the toy shop next door has a new shipment.)

Between one and two million sets are sold yearly; one in every three American households is reported to own one; and thirty thousand new games are said to begin, somewhere in the world, ever hour.

Players of note are a heterogeneous confraternity that includes Barack Obama, the Queen of England, Madonna, Igor Stravinsky, Rosie O'Donnell, Duke Ellington, Nora Ephron, Meadow Soprano, Dustin Hoffman, Justin Timberlake, Chris Martin, Maya Angelou, Carol Burnett, Richard Nixon, and Ludacris, who plays "hip-hop" Scrabble, using words like "crunk," "hizzo," and "pajawa"—a version of the "dirty" Scrabble that was popular with Hollywood swingers fifty years ago.

(I heard one of their ancient jokes at the tournament: "'Cervix' is my favorite opening.'")

Three-quarters of that paragraph is quintessential New Yorker: the scholarly use of statistics, the arcane vocabulary ("confraternity"), the long list, the lavish use of commas and semicolons.

(In his marvelous book The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing, Ben Yagoda quotes E.B. White, who said the New Yorker was the publication in which "commas ... fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.")

Then, in the final two sentences, Thurman winks, cracks her knuckles, and talks dirty. Bingo.

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