The Riddles of the Sphinx

Inheriting the Feminist History of the Crossword Puzzle

by Anna Shechtman

On Sale: 03/05/2024

The Riddles of the Sphinx

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The Riddles of the Sphinx

Inheriting the Feminist History of the Crossword Puzzle

by Anna Shechtman

On Sale: 03/05/2024


About the Book

"A surprising and ambitious investigation of language and the varied ways women resist the paradoxes of patriarchy both on and off the page."—New York Times

Combining the soul-baring confessional of Brain on Fire and the addictive storytelling of The Queen’s Gambit, a renowned puzzle creator’s compulsively readable memoir and history of the crossword puzzle as an unexpected site of women’s work and feminist protest.

The indisputable “queen of crosswords,” Anna Shechtman published her first New York Times puzzle at age nineteen, and later, helped to spearhead the The New Yorker’s popular crossword section. Working with a medium often criticized as exclusionary, elitist, and out-of-touch, Anna is one of very few women in the field of puzzle making, where she strives to make the everyday diversion more diverse.

In this fascinating work—part memoir, part cultural analysis—she excavates the hidden history of the crossword and the overlooked women who have been central to its creation and evolution, from the “Crossword Craze” of the 1920s to the role of digital technology today. As she tells the story of her own experience in the CrossWorld, she analyzes the roles assigned to women in American culture, the boxes they’ve been allowed to fill, and the ways that they’ve used puzzles to negotiate the constraints and play of desire under patriarchy.

The result is an unforgettable and engrossing work of art, a loving and revealing homage to one of our most treasured, entertaining, and ultimately political pastimes.

Critical Praise

"A book too mischievously multiform to classify…witty and rewarding…a witty and crisp stylist . . . Shechtman is a constructor in the best sense of the word. . . . Her puzzles are designed to teach us. Her book, at once a celebration and demonstration of the riotousness of words, does the same." — Washington Post

"The Riddles of the Sphinx is one of the best books of 2024, hands down, and I can’t wait for everyone else—puzzlers and laymen alike—to fall in love with it too." — Sophia Stewart, The Millions

"A rigorous yet fleet-footed exploration of the crossword puzzle’s feminist legacy. . . .Throughout, Shechtman investigates how gender, race, and politics affect crosswords. . . . By turns incisive and roving, this teases out hidden connections and forgotten histories that will enthrall readers." — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"The Riddles of the Sphinx resembles the best themed crosswords: paradoxical puzzles that are simultaneously rigid and relational, entertaining and educational." — BookPage

"The book is also itself a kind of crossword, bringing together worlds that might not otherwise exist in the same place at the same time. . . . Shechtman is delightful when sly...she has a preternatural gift for perceiving perfectly placed pieces of language." — Adrienne Raphel, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Meticulously researched. . . . The Riddles of the Sphinx is an accomplishment in journalism and storytelling, allowing readers to understand how crosswords are not just black-and-white squares on a page but reminders that women, properly recognized or not, have always written history (and crossword) books." — Shelf Awareness

"As a gripping study sprinkled with puns and puzzles, this book encompasses the reasoning behind Shechtman’s own search for meaning while describing the constraints and histories of women who changed the narrative about wordplay. The book also soundly cracks the code for feminists puzzling over how wordplay fits into gender politics." — Library Journal (starred review)

"An absorbing book debut. . . . A forthright self-portrait and perceptive cultural critique." — Kirkus Reviews

"The Riddles of the Sphinx is the best writing on crossword puzzles that I've ever read. So treat yourself. Go get it." — Rex Parker, Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword Puzzle

"As a memoir of the female body, The Riddles of the Sphinx is, by turns, intensely cerebral and sensual. As a history of wordplay, it is rigorous yet delightful. As a work of nonfiction, it is accomplished, hypnotic, and, at moments, tremendously unsettling. In revealing how femininity can turn into a monstrous ideal, Shechtman stages a serious reckoning with not just her past, but with the whole history of feminist thought." — Merve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers

"A history of the crossword that is also a memoir of one woman’s dangerous attempt to solve the puzzle of her own body, The Riddles of the Sphinx takes the reader from the Algonquin Round Table to smoke-filled Parisian lecture halls, lesbian separatist marches, a contemporary crossword tournament, and an eating disorder treatment center in Paradise, Utah. Writing with intelligence, clarity, and unexpected humor, Anna Shechtman deftly weaves together the neglected histories of the women who made and make the crossword, raising urgent and fascinating questions about the politics of wordplay and the dilemma of living in language." — Christine Smallwood, author of The Life of the Mind

"At once meticulously researched and beautifully written, The Riddles of the Sphinx unravels the disordered logics of those who live with anorexia and the pathologies of a society that help shape body dysmorphia in so many. Shechtman, a celebrated crossword constructor, traces the fascinating intersections between her personal history and that of the women who helped create—and sustain—the crossword puzzle craze. The result is a propulsive, necessary, and ultimately hopeful exploration—one that urgently speaks to our capacity to solve puzzles that go far beyond those on the page." — Meghan O'Rourke, author of The Invisible Kingdom

"Part history, part memoir, part feminist reconsideration, it offers a sweeping overview of the American crossword puzzle over the last century, told primarily through the stories of four pioneering women who were integral to its evolution....The Riddles of the Sphinx poses questions—What kinds of intellectual work is considered worthy of our attention? What boxes have women historically been permitted to fill?—only to consistently invert and twist them. What emerges is a surprising and ambitious investigation of language and the varied ways women resist the paradoxes of patriarchy both on and off the page." — New York Times


Product Details

  • ISBN: 9780063275478
  • ISBN 10: 0063275473
  • Imprint: HarperOne
  • On Sale: 03/05/2024
  • Pages: 288
  • List Price:36.99 CAD
  • BISAC2 : SOCIAL SCIENCE / Feminism & Feminist Theory
  • BISAC3 : HISTORY / Women
  • BISAC5 : SOCIAL SCIENCE / Popular Culture
  • BISAC6 : SOCIAL SCIENCE / Women's Studies
  • BISAC7 : SOCIAL SCIENCE / LGBT Studies / Lesbian Studies

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