In September of 2010, the New York Times published a week's worth of crossword puzzles created by Brown University students. The anchor of Brown Crossword Week was a third-year economics and literary arts double-major from Brooklyn named Natan Last. His Saturday puzzle — which featured "ARS" ("____ sine scientia nihil est") alongside "LAPDANCES" ("Bachelor party entertainment") and "FLAVORFLAV" ("Founding member of Public Enemy known for wearing large clocks around his neck") — was the twelfth he had published in the Times.
Last, the co-founder of the Brown Puzzling Association, published a book of crosswords in March that he and some friends constructed. It's called Word. and its pages are filled with the intellectual swirl of high and low-brow references that fans of Last have come to expect. Mad Men, LSD, The Addams Family, Seinfeld, Major League Baseball, Sly and the Family Stone, John Keats, The Lord of the Rings, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Spamalot, Hamlet, Nelly, McFlurries, Goodfellas, Cheech and Chong, and Budweiser's "Whassup!" campaign — they all appear in just one of the book's 144 puzzles. The book also boasts the ultimate stamp of word-nerd approval: a foreword by legendary Times crossword editor, Will Shortz, who writes that, with Last and his cadre of young constructors, "The future of crosswords is in good hands."
If there are any suspicions that Last is some wise old man posing as a twentysomething savant, I can now confidently dispel them. He is a bona fide college student. When he showed up late for coffee at Brown Bookstore on a recent afternoon, his hair was tousled and he was profusely apologetic. He had stayed up late the night before and had slept through his alarm, he explained. It was 2:45 pm.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
PEN OR PENCIL? I'm a pen guy.
DO YOU DO CROSSWORDS DURING LECTURES? If I have my computer, sometimes I will. The good thing there is that, if I'm doing a crossword during a lecture, I'm pretty fast. So thankfully I'm not not-paying attention for too long. My dad's a teacher and I try not to lop on too much disrespect.
YOU HAVE NOW INTERNED FOR WILL SHORTZ THREE TIMES. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE? The man just lives and breathes puzzles. He's got a clock in his room that's a crossword puzzle and the second and minute hands are pencils. He wears crossword-print PJs. When I get there, he's like "Oh, I'm just finishing up my Alpha-Bits." It's actually his favorite cereal. It goes on. It's like almost caricaturing itself. He turned everything into a game. We would go to Chinese takeout for lunch together and I would start to open my fortune cookie and he would be like, "Stop." And I was like, "Why?" "We're going to play Chinese Fortune Cookie Charades." And then I would have to act out my fortune in charades in the middle of a crowded Chinese restaurant.
IS CROSSWORD-MAKING AN ART? A CRAFT? It is in a way a form of linguistic self-expression. The coolest thing about it, I think, is that it's a really good tool for reflecting the current language. So the reason crossword constructors that are my age enjoy doing this is because there is a whole slew of words that just entered the lexicon that we love to see in puzzles. We love to be the people that scoff at puzzles that, 80 or so years ago, just had dictionary definitions. And that's no fun. Hopefully, the puzzles in [this] book are full to the brim with words like "BABE MAGNET."