I hate Scrabble. It gives me a headache. My wife, who is an avid player, knows not to ask me to draw seven tiles — mostly because I’m so bad at figuring out what to do with them. “ ‘And’? That’s the best you can do?” But I’m a good sport, and so when invited to play by friends who are unaware of my inability to think beyond one-syllable conjunctions, it takes about three or four moves (which means, for me, about an hour and a half) before I ask if anyone has an Aspirin.
There are lots of activities I’m not good at, believe me. But being not good at Scrabble is the one that inspires people to say, “But you’re a writer.” Nobody says that about my slalom skiing or my pie crusts. Scrabble may be the only thing that writers are supposed to be good at — aside from writing, I mean, and even that’s not a given. I am of the view, however, that writers are not the farm team you want to tap when picking your all‑star Scrabble squad. I bet that Mary Shelley and Thomas Hardy would be (for sixty points on a triple word score) execrable. Here’s why.
There’s a dock that I sit on for a week or two every summer. It’s a plain old wooden platform with a plain old wooden chair. It catches the late afternoon sun, as well as the breeze from the lake, and I am in the habit of sitting on it for an hour or two before dinner, reading. And drinking. The quality of wine can vary, but the books that I take with me, down the path and through the woods to the well-weathered chair on the wave-lapped dock, are always good. As in, really good. Over the years, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Morrison’s Beloved, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse have accompanied me to my shoreline retreat. Last summer, it was Joyce’s Ulysses.
I drink my wine slowly, but my slow drinking isn’t as slow as my slow reading. I can race through an Agatha Christie or a Rex Stout or a Dorothy Sayers as quickly as my mother could — and she sometimes went through three mysteries a week. I’m getting so fast with newspapers that there’s a shorter and shorter delay between the front porch and the recycling bin. But I take a different approach to the classics I bring with me on August afternoons to the quayage (a legitimate Scrabble word, useful when a four-pointer such as me plays “age” after a solidly tedious, temple-pounding thirty minutes of staring at the damn board).
Usually, these are novels that I first encountered at university. I don’t want to go into historical detail, so let’s just say that was a long time ago. The difference between now and then (among other things) is that now I reread these great books while I am rereading them. Here’s how this works: One sentence forward, two back is my operational standard. When I was in school, overdue term papers and next-day exams encouraged a speedier, more pragmatic approach to the literary life.
On my summer holidays, I reread paragraphs. Sometimes I reread them half a dozen times if they are particularly poetic or beautiful or droll. (Until I slowed my reading pace to a luxurious and slightly inebriated crawl, I had not realized how funny Proust can be.) I reread sentences for the same reasons. In fact, I reread words. I reread the spaces between words. Often I spend an hour or two reading the same pages that I spent an hour or two reading the day before, and the day before that. Sometimes I stop reading altogether and look at the water or the clouds or the far shore and think about what I just read. That’s where the wine comes in. I go nowhere fast.
People find this odd, and I’m okay with that. I’m a writer and therefore quite accustomed to being found odd by people who ask what I do. I once met a former leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party at a friend’s birthday celebration. The honourable gentleman asked what I did. I answered. He looked at me quizzically for a second or two the way one might look at an orangutan in a zoo (isn’t it funny how much like humans they are?) and then, without another word, turned and walked away. “Asshole,” incidentally, is another legitimate Scrabble word.
Unlike Scrabble enthusiasts who insist (usually on a rainy day somewhere on the Canadian Shield) that, despite all evidence to the contrary, it is fun to cram words nobody has ever heard or jotted down or uttered aloud in normal, non-Scrabble conversation (“aquafaba,” “bokeh,” “qat,” “muzjik,” “ze”) into tightly confined, unforgiving, strictly linear grids that have all the poetry of an instruction manual, I am willing to concede that what I do on my summer holidays with William Faulkner and Alice Munro and E. M. Forster is idiosyncratic. Unlike the Scrabble evangelicals of the world (most of whom my wife plays online), I never say, “Hey, everybody! Do you want to go down to the dock and read Molly Bloom’s soliloquy?” I appreciate that what I do may not be everybody’s cup of Assam (a proper noun that, unfortunately, isn’t at all useful when my move is “as”).
But odd ? Really? Nobody would ever say, when invited to come over and enjoy a favourite film, “Oh, I saw Casablanca in 1972, so I’m good.” Do men ever — ever — watch The Godfather just once? If you strolled past Van Gogh’s Sunflowers when you were eighteen and backpacking through Europe, do you feel, the next time you’re near London’s National Gallery, that you’ve been there, done that? Are you impatient with classical music stations? “Oh, please, not Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony! I’ve heard it before.”
Yet people treat great books the way tourists treat the Big Five on an African safari. Anna Karenina ? Check. Pride and Prejudice ? Check. The Portrait of a Lady ? Check. Mrs. Dalloway ? Check. One Hundred Years of Solitude ? Check.
I was compelled to read Ulysses in a bit of a rush when I first encountered it a thousand years ago in Professor “No Extensions, Not Even If Your Grandmother Dies” Park’s class, and now that I’ve more recently read it almost as slowly as Joyce wrote it (“Trieste-Zürich-Paris, 1914-1921”), let me assure you that rapid transit is not how you want to get around Dublin on June 16, 1904.
It was while reading Ulysses at a snail’s pace last summer, in that simple wooden chair, that I realized what my affection for those afternoons on the dock has to do with my distinct lack of affection for Scrabble. For one thing, I like the look of a printed page in a book. I like the fluid curve of the spaces between letters and words and paragraphs, whereas words on a Scrabble board have the visual beauty of a directional sign on a highway. Those workaday words have a single purpose: points. You don’t have to have a clue what they mean. You don’t even have to know what they sound like. “Phpht,” by way of a vowelless, who-knows-what-the-hell-it-is example. Whereas words for a writer as great as James Joyce have music. (Being Irish helps to hear it, I will admit.) They have meanings and secondary meanings and tertiary meanings and echoes of meanings and puns of meanings and jokes of meanings and allusions that radiate out from a single printed word like waves around a stone dropped in a limpid pool. And it is this richesse that makes me feel as free as a bird as a reader. I can go forward. I can go back. I can speed up. I can slow down. I can repeat. I can go round and round. I don’t have to be linear.
Oh, and the other thing: at least once a page with a book as great as Ulysses, and often more frequently than that, I will say to the wind and the clouds and the waves and the far shore (as I take a sip of my wine): “Wow, is this ever good!” And I have never once heard anyone say that about Scrabble when, to my relief, the game is finally over.