Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players by Stefan Fatsis

This book helped me to answer the question (which, quite honestly, I've never asked myself and wouldn't have wanted to know the answer to anyway):

What would it be like if someone borrowed a book from the library, smoked a new cigarette while reading each individual page, blew the smoke directly into the book and then turned the page and lit up again?

OK, so, I don't really know *for sure* that is what happened, but that's what it seemed like. Every time I opened this book, or turned the page, a powerful wafting stench of stale cigarette smoke would come out of it. This made for a very unpleasant reading experience.

And now, on to the actual content of the book. The author set out to document the American Scrabble culture, a curious underworld populated by overweight, blue-haired old ladies, socially inept geniuses, and the occasional normal middle-class guy with a full-time job and (more rarely) a family. A resident of New York City, Fatsis discovers his local Scrabble club and begins hanging around in Washington Square Park, where chess and Scrabble players converge during the warmer months of the year. Gradually, he gets to know some of the local Scrabble champions and over the course of the three years it took to write the book, he comes to count many of them among his closest friends. He also finds himself inexorably drawn into the game itself. His competitive side comes out. He enters every Scrabble tournament he can, and dreams of reaching expert status. He begs the president of the National Scrabble Association for tutoring so that he can do better. He spends hours memorizing lists of words.

In short, he becomes "one of them". Those crazy, obsessive Scrabble types that he profiles so clinically and journalistically in the first half of the book. Those people who dream about Scrabble, who can't sleep because of thinking about Scrabble, who carry notebooks around with them where they obsessively revisit missed opportunities and lost games.

Suddenly, the game defines him.

Following Fatsis's metamorphosis from detached, smug journalist chronicling the weirdnesses of loopy Scrabble fanatics to... well... loopy Scrabble fanatic was the best part of this book. However, he doles this part out to his readers. He does a very good job of equally balancing his personal experiences with information about the game, profiles of Scrabble greats past & present, and Scrabble history and folklore, but there were times I found my eyes glazing over as I read over some of this stuff - especially the blow-by-blow descriptions of fabulous Scrabble plays by expert players, or information about ratings and tournament scores. I almost wonder if Fatsis got so caught up in the Scrabble world that he forgot that "normal" people couldn't care less about the minutiae of Scrabble. At any rate, as an avid player of average recreational Scrabble, I would enjoy any book about the history and people of Scrabble, but Fatsis's personal involvement and eventual obsession with the game are chronicled in a way that really sucked me in and made this one of the rare nonfiction books that I stuck with and wanted to finish.


Laura said...

Ah ... finaly. A new book review. I have missed reading them in the more frequent doses I was accustomed to. :)

Why do Scrabble players play when it is warm? Isn't this an indoor activity that is perfect for cold wintery days? Inquiring minds want to know.

This sounds like a fun book, and it's amusing that he gets drawn into the obsession too. Now that you've read it, do you want to compete? Are we going to lose you to Scrabble?

Vicki said...

Well, Scrabble competitions and clubs meet year-round - but the meetings in the park seem to not be held in winter, which makes sense to me since NYC is probably pretty damn cold in winter...

I doubt I would want to play Scrabble at a competitive level any time soon, so you're reasonably safe to assume I'll keep being normal for a while. LOL

Cyndi said...

We have to give all books a sniff test before taking them home :-)