Anna Shechtman | The Riddles of the Sphinx: Inheriting the Feminist History of the Crossword Puzzle

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Anna Shechtman's The Riddles of the Sphinx is one of the most exciting debuts of the year, with excerpts in the New Yorker and Harper’s and a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. A rising star in English and Media Studies as much as contemporary cultural criticism, Shechtman is both a newly appointed assistant professor at Cornell University and, as the Guardian described her in 2019, the “queen of crosswords.” She became assistant to Will Shortz at the New York Times in 2013 and later went on to found the New Yorker’s crossword section. She is, in short, one of the most celebrated crossword constructors of our time.

The Riddles of the Sphinx is an exploration of the attractions of a world defined both by the firm rules of a crossword and the limitless significations of words — where one must fit the free associations of a clue into the slot of a predetermined grid. The book is also a story about the relationship between gender and technology in modern America. Once largely the preserve of women, crossword constructing became in the second half of the twentieth century the nearly exclusive domain of men. Both through history and through her own experience, Shectman draws out the relationship between this shift and the rise of new crossword technology. “As puzzle-making became increasingly informed by computer programming,” she recently observed in the New Yorker, “it began to replicate the imbalance of tech culture.” But through both her own efforts and those of her peers, this has begun to change.

The Riddles of the Sphinx documents this story while opening up rich new historical and intellectual territory to explore, drawing on Shechtman’s scholarly expertise in the history of media and the history of data.

Shechtman will be joined in conversation by Moira Donegan, writer in residence at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford. A regular opinion columnist for the Guardian, Donegan is a leading public intellectual and a contributor to the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. She is currently at work on her first book, Gone Too Far: MeToo, Backlash, and the Future of Feminist Politics.