Today’s guest blogger is Sarah Turner. Check out her blog, Sarah In Small Doses after you give this post a read.
Hello! I’m guest-posting this week while Charlie is away, but rest assured: she will return in a few weeks, no doubt with many more books under her belt (reading glasses?). Anyway, Charlie and I go way back, so I was very honored when she asked me to fill in for her. Plus, it was a great opportunity for me to read a book that I had been meaning to read for some time.
I acquired Word Freak from a former roommate of mine in Brooklyn, an editor for Penguin Publishing whose personal library would make any bibliophile swoon. When she and her husband moved out of their room and I moved in, I inherited the books they left behind, and this nonfiction account of the Scrabble world by Stefan Fatsis was among the spoils. I liked the cover and the title, and since I was soon-to-be an MFA student in creative nonfiction, I felt like it would be a good book to have in my possession. Unfortunately, I felt that way about a lot of books (20 boxes worth, in fact) so when I moved from New York to Minnesota, this book got stuck on a shelf and forgotten about. Three moves and about a hundred required-for-class books later, I picked it up again, again because of the cover.
Part memoir, part journalistic reportage, Word Freak exposes* a world that I never knew existed** and examines*** the interesting, often quirky****, people who inhabit that world. As a devotee of language and linguistics, I appreciate the sounds and spellings of words, as well as their meanings. Those who have committed their lives to the pursuit of Scrabble fame and fortune are only concerned with spelling, however; definitions, and especially pronunciations, are unimportant.
The writing in this book was pretty sharp, something I also care about, and I got caught up in the characters, including the narrator/author, who finds himself spiraling into obsession, not unlike the people about whom he’s writing. It even gives the history of the game, created during the Depression by an underemployed architect named Alfred Butts*****, who made only a modest living off of what may be the best-selling board game of all time.
I must confess that I have never played a full game of Scrabble, except in Spanish class with Chico, in which we could only play Spanish words (but with English tiles). Try spelling “niña” without the “ ~ ”. I have, however, played several thousand games of Bananagrams, which is essentially Speed Scrabble, or Pick, as we called it growing up, when we used the wooden Scrabble tiles to create our own crosswords directly on the table. As a writer who loves unusual words, I’ve gotten so notorious among my friends for my Bananagrams-playing that most of them won’t join me in a game, and when they do, they comment on how I play.
LK: Sarah, you play so slowly when we play together. I see you inching the tile over to add to your words, and you still beat me.
Or they have to suffer through me “helping” them.
ST: You could spell “tumbling” and then play “goofy” off one of the G’s.
Boyfriend: Um, thanks…I guess…+
I played at least half a dozen games of Bananagrams in the middle of reading this book and I didn’t win a single one, however. I think I was so wrapped up in trying to find rare, high-points words that I missed the easy small ones. Never underestimate a well-placed two-letter word.
One of the real reasons I chose to read this book now (ahead of the many other books I’ve moved from place to place), is I am in a page exchange with another writer, a classmate and friend of mine named Jordan Wiklund (no “C”), who is writing a book about another game that has an almost cultish following: Cribbage. Jordan’s book, Cribbageland, is a fascinating look at not just the people who play cribbage but why, where, and on what bizarre and unique****** boards. There is actually a cribbage belt you can buy, which has holes all the way along it for the pegs. So you’re never without a board if someone wants to play. And my favorite story is of someone who made the largest cribbage board ever out of ice fishing holes, using fence posts as pegs. When his book comes out (he already has an agent) you will definitely want to check it out because it’s already phenomenal, a word that in Scrabble would only be worth 17 points, but which means so much more by definition. And that, for this “word freak,” is all that counts.
****22 points, and a good way to use the K and the Y with the Q. Also, if you played it on a double or triple word/letter space, you’d rack up even more points. Exposes and existed are “bingoes,” words that use all seven letters in your rack, and examines would have to be used with an open letter somewhere, probably an S, and would also be a bingo. See? I learned stuff.
*****Yes, that is his actual name. Not to be confused with his brother, Seymour, who is the, um, butt of many a joke.
+Boyfriend is very good at humoring me. And not so good at Bananagrams.
******Only 15 points. I would have thought it would be more, but at least it’s a way to use Q without starting with it. To calculate a word’s point value, check out this website. I have no guarantee that it is accurate, but it is amazingly fast. And that’s all we want in this ADHD world, isn’t it?