word freak-stefan fatsis

i’m not even gonna front. this book was hella dragging. i had to start and stop a couple times (yes, i’m blogging laferriere out of order, so sue me) to read other things, but in the end, i had to force my way through it for a few gems. i really don’t like the self-centered experiential form of journalism, in print or video forms. there are ways to show your opinion without beating people over the head with it. i realized fairly early that i already knew the characters from word wars, the documentary that i saw last year courtesy of the toronto public library ( i swear i blogged about it, but i can’t find any record of it). i appreciate the ways that the movie centers around the neurosis of the people, but respect that the word-related things are elaborated on in a different way in print form. bigups to both sides of the story.

the metrotextual passage:

The New York City subway system is like a favorite library carrel. I get my best studying done there. When I board the train in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I have twenty to forty-five minutes, depending on destination, of total alone time, a perfect concentration increment. I like the fetal rocking motion. I like the periodic announcements. I like the strangers looking over my shoulder and wondering why I’m highlighting funny-looking letter combinations on a page of jumbled uppercase letters. Being engaged in a practice apart from the usual subway behaviors-newspaper reading, catnapping, CD listening, baby tending, battery peddling, panhandling-somehow makes me proud of my (a)vocation, proud of being different, and, therefore, able to focus better. No one said it had to make sense.” (330-1)


6 thoughts on “word freak-stefan fatsis

  1. marlon:

    “Of course, no one takes Marlon’s act entirely seriously. He’s never threatening. He laughs at himself when ribbed. He has forged caring friendships with many players; he greets me with a soul handshake and chest bump, while the sweet Rose Kreiswirth, a middle-aged expert from Long Island, gets a hug and kiss on the cheek. Marlon’s ready good humor, courtesy, and loveable charm don’t stop his outbursts. If they did, Marlon wouldn’t be Marlon. Even Marlon doesn’t always view himself as entirely out of the mainstream. Asked to pick seven Scrabble tiles that best describe him, he replied, “M-A-R-L-O-N, plus a blank. MARLON is NORMAL. And the blank is unlimited potential.”
    If he’s ever going to be feared and respected, like Cappelletto and Edley, Marlon needs to exploit that potential and play it cool. Otherwise, he’ll forever be a sideshow-the loud, irreverent, outrageous Black Player, good but not great. Not that Marlon worries about how he’s perceived. He knows he’s smarter than most people.
    “Never in my life have I felt inferior,” he tells me. “Never, not ever. Ain’t never looked at a white boy and thought that motherfucker is better than me. Under no circumstances. Stupidity when it confronts intellect does not retreat. Intellect when it meets stupidity ain’t got no choice but to retreat. ‘Cause the first thing you say is, ‘Oops, you stupid.’” (187-8)

  2. jedi mind tricks:

    “But the chess clock to my right taunts me like a grade school bully as it winds down from twenty-five minutes toward zero. I have these great letters, but no place to score a lot of points with them.” (2)

    “In a way, the living room player is lucky. He has no idea how miserably he fails with almost every turn, how many possible words or optimal plays slips by unnoticed. The idea of Scrabble greatness doesn’t exist for him.” (128)

    “But a question lingers in my mind: Did the game create the personality or was the personality attracted to the game? Was Scrabble the symptom or the cause? And how can you be sure?” (162)

    “I want a return on my investment. I want a return of glory on my investment of time.” (192)

  3. from humble beginnings:

    “Scrabble isn’t like any of the other thinking-person’s board games, for one reason: Someone owns it. Chess and backgammon, which have been played and studied for centuries, are nonproprietary. Anyone can make a copy. As such, there’s a sort of theoretical purity about them, as if they were handed down from the gods for humankind’s analysis and bemusement.” (22)

    “Scrabble hardly has a romantic or mythic history. The game was invented by an unemployed, young New York architect named Alfred Mosher Butts during the Depression. The timing was right. A new game, one of skill and chance, Butts figured, would be a welcome diversion for down-on-their-luck Americans like the inventor himself.” (22)

    “Because Butts lived in the twentieth century, his game had to be protected legally; it couldn’t just exist. Just as war begat chess, the advancing state of communications in America all but mandated creation of a language-based strategy game. Butts invented a game that filled a void in the hierarchy of games, and in the culture.” (99)

    “The country’s shimmering, suburban, stay-at-home, postwar prosperity was fertile soil for the sudden rise of Scrabble. What better way to demonstrate the American know-how and ingenuity that had just saved the world than with a game that tested one’s knowledge and creativity? What better way to luxuriate in the greatest prosperity the nation had ever known than by relaxing over a board game that, unlike Monopoly (Depression-era wealth fantasies) or Life (turn-of-the-century moralism), had no intentional social overtones? Leisure time was a concept just taking root, and what could be more leisurely, if not decadent, than Scrabble? It was a game of the mind that often took hours to play. America finally could devote itself to trivial pastimes. The country was infused with prosperity and suddenly enamored of education. Scrabble fit.” (102-3)

    “The words aren’t the only thing separating North America and the rest of the Scrabbling world. The World Scrabble Championship is a showcase for one of the oddest relationships in the toy industry, perhaps in any industry. While Hasbro controls the North American rights to Scrabble, in the rest of the world they belong to Hasbro’s rival, Mattel Inc. It’s as if Ford and General Motors had to share a soft drink. Scrabble is like a child caught in a custody fight between warring parents. In this case, visitation rights for the Worlds, by an unofficial agreement between two companies, are on an every-other-year basis. “It’s quite possible that a high-level Hasbro executive and a Mattel executive never had a conversation about this,” John Williams says. “It’s like North and South Korea.” (236-7)

  4. wordly wise:

    “To play competitive Scrabble, one has to get over the conceit of refusing to acknowledge certain words as real and accept that the game requires learning words that may not have any outside utility. In the living room, Scrabble is about who has a better working vocabulary. It’s a sort of crossword puzzle in reverse. But in the tournament room, Scrabble has nothing to do with vocabulary. If it did, I-an Ivy League-educated professional journalist, for crying out loud-would rule. But I can only dream of competing with the champions. No, Scrabble isn’t about words. It’s about mastering the rules of the game, and the words are the rules.” (40)

    “For the logophile, anagramming can be about turning words into apposite phrases. In his groundbreaking 1965 book /Language on Vacation/ (a copy of which Matt gives me), Dmitri Borgmann, the father of modern wordplay, offers anagrams for VILLAINOUSNESS (“an evil soul’s sin”), CONVERSATION (“voices rant on”), and DESPERATION (“a rope end it”). He also lists antigrams-words and phrases with opposite meanings-such as “evil’s agents” for EVANGELISTS and “I limit arms” for MILITARISM. The name of pop start Britney Spears anagrams to PRESBYTERIANS, which in turn anagrams to “best in prayers.” Eric Clapton is NARCOLEPTIC. “President Clinton of the USA” turns into “to copulate, he fins interns”.
    But for Scrabble players, single words are the goal, and with Matt and Marlon the longer the words and the more unlikely the letters the better.” (30)

    “‘This is my favorite anagram of all,’ Eric says, and he makes me write this down in my notebook: 11 + 2 = 12 + 1.
    Then he instructs me to spell it out: ELEVEN + TWO = TWELVE + ONE
    ‘God put that there,’ Eric says. ‘There’s no other explanation.’” (33)

  5. take your word for it:

    “Of course, prodigious word knowledge allows for more adventuresome playing, but Joel’s point is less about tactics than style. Experts become experts not only because they study words, but because they are open to danger and are able to weigh risks versus consequences. Away from the game, they may not be skydivers or day traders, but their willingness to stare down a problem, fearlessly, before the knowing gaze of others is one of the things I admire about Joel and the other experts. They may be mild-mannered geeks or underachieving layabouts, but behind a rack, for fifty minutes, they are stone-faced killers. So what if I put a naked E in the triple-word column? Let’s see you do something about it.” (111)

    “After her children left home, she and her husband moved to Israel, where she plays in the Jerusalem club, which boasts that it’s the biggest in the world, attracting forty or fifty devotees a week. During the Gulf War, club members donned gas masks and played between air-raid sirens.” (113)

    “He went to the club and met Steve Pfeiffer, another Vietnam vet. Pfeiffer shared word lists and they talked Scrabble, but rarely Vietnam. Richie decided he wanted to master the game. Why not? Scrabble was the ultimate distraction from everything that had come before. How could you think about the horrors of war when you had to memorize one hundred thousand words? Scrabble helped Richie forget. He devoted a year just to learning the words.” (228)

    “It’s the only thing I’m really good at, and if I can’t accomplish something in this field, it’s unlikely I’ll accomplish something in any other field.
    ‘So this basically validates my existence.’ He pauses. ‘I’m not kidding.’” (19)

    But Edley became dissatisfied. “I wasn’t altruistic enough to deal with people who didn’t really want to change.” (67)

    and it is this definition of altruism that sticks with me. it could be the thing in this book that i’m most great-full to the author for. ironic that he isn’t directly responsible for it.

  6. That page reference 330, reminded me of when i discovered just how much more reading i get done on the train, i stopped taking the subway for a brief time. The reading commenced when i went back to the routine train ride and I realized my bookmark had not shifted since my last trip, i think it was one of the gladwell books.

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