WORD FREAK by Stefan Fatsis
How Acquired: BookCrossing bookring
Reading Began: May 19, 2005
Completed Reading: May 28, 2005
Overall Rating: Seven out of ten
Recommendation to others: Though a bit dry at times, this exploration of the competitive world of Scrabble is fascinating and quite educational for anyone who has ever had an interest in the game or an obsession with words themselves.
Other titles by this author: Wild and Outside: How a Renegade Minor League Revived the Spirit of Baseball in America’s Heartland
Comments: I struggled a bit with the beginning chapters of this book, only because I was trying so hard to grasp all of the tips and techniques to be used in the game of Scrabble. It was exhausting, the amount of information I was reading, and very quickly I could see that I needed to stop thinking about it and just read. Fortunately, the early chapters are the only ones truly mired in instruction. Most of the book (and the best part of it) contains wonderfully told stories about the kooky, quirky, completely obsessive players whom the author met while immersing himself in this highly competitive arena. Through much of these chapters I found myself passing judgement on these “characters”, knowing that they would be viewed as nothing short of losers in society’s narrow perspective. Many do not have lives outside the competitions, do not have families, do not hold down employment, do not even have homes of their own. Profile after profile, Fatsis noted how completely consumed these players are in their Scrabble playing, and I couldn’t help but feel really sorry that they had nothing else to hang onto. But toward the last quarter of the book I realized that I had come to like these people, I had come to appreciate them in the ways the author hoped I would. That their lives differ from some societal “norm” seemed to give them a slight edge, one that I couldn’t help but admire; they had found a way to drop out of society’s constraints and make an entirely new community of their own.
Stefan Fatsis did note that he chose to focus his efforts on only those players who made a good book rather than the multitude others who also play competitively but keep a balance between “real life” and the game-playing. It tempered my opinion to read that, and it made me see this book for what it was: one man’s headlong dive into a new world wherein he gained a respect and understanding for its subculture. I had to admire the research that Fatsis put into the book, and I had to smile at his acknowledgement that he too became equally obsessed with the game. I can’t imagine I would respond any other way.
Dictionaries are designed to appear authoritative. People refer to “the dictionary” as if there were just one, divinely inspired, like the Bible, and passed down through the ages.
But dictionaries are as subjective as any other piece of writing. Which words are included in them and which words are removed or ignored are decisions made by lexicographers based on shifting criteria, varying standards, and divergent publishing goals. Dictionaries serve different agendas, contain different numbers of entries, and have different rules.
What’s considered a word by lexicographic standards? Depends on what you count. Linguists thirty years ago estimated the size of the English lexicon at more than four million words; today it could be double that.
Webster said that “the business of the lexicographer is to collect, arrange, and define as far as possible, all the words that belong to a language, and leave the author to select from them at his pleasure and according to his own taste and judgment.” Or, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Dictionaries are but depositories of words already legitimated by usage.” Chapter 10 : The Words (pp. 145-146)
John Williams reminds me of something he told me when I first started playing: “It’s easy to get pretty good pretty quickly by learning a few tricks and playing a lot. Then you hit a wall — unless you start devoting yourself to this dubious proposition.”
The wall analogy is a good one. The term usually refers to the point between mile eighteen and twenty-five of a marathon, where a runner’s muscles shut down because of a lack of glycogen. In other pursuits, it’s come to mean the dividing line between proficiency and mastery, that indefinable point at which the accumulation of skill or knowledge stops being easy and requires deliberate, consistent effort. Chapter 18 : 1416 (p. 271)
A study by the Carnegie-Mellon professors William Chase and Herbert Simon showed that expert chess players could re-create perfectly a board setup from an actual game, while novice players could not. But when the same pieces were placed randomly on the board, the experts had no better recall of their placement than the novice players. Positions need to have meaning related to the expertise.
But [professor] Larry Squire notes that there’s a genetic component to expertise, too, even if scientists and researchers haven’t yet figured out how to define or measure it. “Mozart was Mozart. No amount of basketball practice is going to turn you or me into Michael Jordan,” he says. “The brain we are born with is adept at being good at being a musician or a lawyer or a scientist or an accountant or a Scrabble player.” Chapter 21 : 1601 (p. 330)