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Professor offers online readers a clue

Every day, thousands of people visit Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword Puzzle, a blog that features the answers to the puzzle along with commentary about clues and the puzzle itself.

And, while he has remained largely anonymous until now, Rex Parker is on Binghamton’s faculty. You’ll find him in the office of Michael Sharp, an assistant professor of English who took on the pseudonym and started the blog on a lark a little more than a year ago.

Sharp, now 38, began doing the Times crossword puzzle with some friends at Pomona College when he was an undergraduate. “It wasn’t an obsession,” he said, “just a fun thing to do on a Sunday.”

It became a more serious hobby while he was working on his doctorate at the University of Michigan. That’s when Sharp started solving the puzzle — in ink — at Ann Arbor coffeehouses just about every day.

The puzzle’s frame of reference in those days was less contemporary and more arcane than it is under the direction of Will Shortz, who became the paper’s crossword puzzle editor in 1993.

“It represented an intellectual challenge,” Sharp said, “some sort of bar to cross.”

Sharp joined Binghamton’s faculty in 1999 and found he had little time for the puzzle. But a few years later, he subscribed to the Times’ puzzle online and picked up where he had left off.

Sharp would talk to other puzzl


Michael Sharp's blog, Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword Puzzle, is online at http://rexwordpuzzle.blogspot.com.
ers once in a while, but it’s essentially a solitary pursuit, and even diehards rarely engaged in conversation about a specific puzzle.

Then last fall, he decided to start a blog.
“I had no plan, no concept, no idea about blogs,” Sharp recalled. “I was just experimenting with how to write one.”

Initially, he’d go to the Times’ forum for the puzzle and make comments there, listing his blog’s URL under his name. He soon had dozens of readers.

After a couple of other blogs mentioned Rex Parker, Sharp found his readership growing rapidly. His latest figure is about 6,500 readers per day.

The blog offers Sharp a venue for an idiosyncratic, personal style quite different from his academic writing. And what began as a lark has come to feel like a job.

Sharp generally solves the puzzle when it’s released online at night. He can do some weekday puzzles in less than four minutes; a Sunday puzzle might take 15 or 20 minutes. (The puzzle is easiest on Mondays and gets harder throughout the week.)

He writes about the puzzle for about half an hour each morning, and tries to post his update by 9 a.m.

Sharp, who doesn’t sell advertising or profit from the blog in any way, guesses he spends another hour or so most days reading other blogs and responding to comments and e-mail.

He hears regularly from puzzle-world celebrities such as Shortz as well as a famous mathemat


Michael Sharp, assistant professor of English, is Rex Parker when he writes his Web log, " Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword Puzzle".
ician and a mystery writer. Some of his correspondents are very “persnickety,” Sharp said, but most are polite and even nice.

The single biggest highlight of Sharp’s blogging experience so far was when a conservative blog called Power Line posted an item in which the writer said William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, had laughed until he cried when reading Rex Parker.

“The idea of me making Bill Kristol laugh until he cried — I just wanted to quit right there,” Sharp said.

Sharp said people ask him all the time for his secret to solving the puzzle. He concedes that it doesn’t hurt to be intelligent and have a general curiosity about the world, but he believes the real key is practice. “That’s how you get better,” he said. “It has nothing to do with how much I know.”

The blog, on the other hand, is a different story.

“I don’t think I could do what I’m doing without a Ph.D. in English — or at least, not the same way,” he said.

Sharp, a medievalist who teaches courses as varied as Arthurian Literature and American Crime Fiction, sees his blog as a way to create an intellectual community, one that satisfies him in a different way from academic discourse.

“It’s gratifying,” he said, “to be in conversation with other highly intelligent people around something intellectual.”

 

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Last Updated: 10/14/08