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Scrabble Lit -- excerpts

Posted by Joshua Glenn  December 26, 2007 11:33 AM

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I've just spent an entire day using Amazon's and Google's book search engines, looking for the phrases "play Scrabble," "playing Scrabble," "game of Scrabble," and "Scrabble game" in North American novels and memoirs. I've skipped over hundreds of examples -- particularly from the past five years -- and selected only excerpts that seemed particularly telling. I've drawn a few conclusions, in another post, but this is a rich vein to mine. There's plenty more to say on the subject...

The Fifties (1954-63)

* "Playing 'bop' is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing." -- Duke Ellington, in Look Magazine (August 10, 1954).

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* Martha Hyer tries to get a convalescent William Holden to play Scrabble in "Sabrina" (1954).

* "I sat gaping through Scrabble games, unable to form the simplest word; I had to be prompted by a nurse, and even then couldn't make any sense of the words the nurse had formed for me." -- from Robert Lowell's posthumously published memoir, "Near the Unbalanced Aquarium," written circa 1955-56, in which describes one of his stays in New York Hospital's Payne Whitney Clinic, where he was treated for manic depression.

* "The presents had been arranged on the little round white table the night before -- the
white, furry, almost real kitten, the ceramic kit, the Scrabble game..." -- "The Story of Gabrielle" (1956), about a little girl dying of cancer, by Catherine Gabrielson.

* "'Remember that nine-letter word you won our last Scrabble game with.' 'Honeymoon,
I'll bet,' said Diana counting on her fingers." -- "Deluxe Tour" (1956), by Frederic Wakeman.

* "'Oh no!' cried Lisa despairingly. Playing Scrabble with Margie was a long step on the way to a nervous breakdown." -- "The Highest Dream" (1956), by Phyllis A. Whitney.

* ""What do you think I'm proposing, Richard Queen, a game of Scrabble?" He took a
step toward her. And stopped, swallowing hard. "But Jessie, I'm an old man..." -- "Inspector Queen's Own Case: November Song" (1956), by Ellery Queen.

* "Trixie was absently building something with the Scrabble counters on the floor in front of the fireplace. Now she gave a sigh and slowly began to replace the counters in the box, at a rate that would keep her there twenty minutes." -- "Deep Water" (1957), by Patricia Highsmith.

* "They watch the TV a couple of hours every evening when not at the movies or
visiting neighbors for a game of Scrabble." -- "The American Class Structure" (1957), by Joseph Alan Kahl. (Not a novel.)

* "She permitted Si to buy her lunch twice and she would sometimes kibitz the girls' Scrabble game." -- "The Lotus Eaters" (1959), by Gerald Green.

* "We've just received a cable/From a couple who are able/On a luminescent table/to
play Scrabble in the dark." -- from "The Fireside Book of Humorous Poetry" (1959).

* "I asked Harry if he would join me in a game of Scrabble. He said he would prefer to go to bed, but if we must do something, Scrabble was about the easiest..." -- "The Sacred Mushroom: Key to the Door of Eternity" (1959), by Andrija Puharich.

* "Once, I beguiled him into playing a game of Scrabble with me. Food left beside him one day was still there, congealed and unappetizing, the next." -- "Good-by, My Son" (1960), a memoir of mental illness by Arthur Woolson.

"'Quit playing Scrabble, for Christ's sakes!'" -- "Diamond Head" (1960), by Peter Gilman.

"...for I was darned tired of waking up in the morning with a despondent feeling and playing Scrabble with the intuitive function in me that kept pulling me..." -- "And A Time to Die" (1961), by Mark Pelgrin, a memoir of cancer.

* "The Scrabble game had been a failure. No one had been able to concentrate; the game was abandoned halfway through. The Emersons left; Fritz and Laurie decided to go to bed." -- "The Heartless Light" (1961), by Gerald Green. Also see Green's "The Lotus Eaters," above.

* "My mother was only one in a long stream of visitors -- my former employer, the lady Christian Scientist, who walked on the lawn with me and talked about the mist going up from the earth in the Bible, and the mist being error, and my whole trouble being that I believed in the mist, and the minute I stopped believing in it, it would disappear and I would see I had always been well, and the English teacher I had in high school who came and tried to teach me how to play Scrabble, because he thought it might revive my old interest in words, and Philomena Guinea herself, who wasn't at all satisfied with what the doctors were doing and kept telling them so. I hated these visits." -- "The Bell Jar" (1963), by Sylvia Plath.

* "We waited nervously all evening trying to pass the time with a game of Scrabble. Then about midnight a thought suddenly struck me." -- "And Always Tomorrow" (1963), a memoir of mental illness by Sarah Winston.

The Sixties (1964-73)

* "Each evening we played a game of Scrabble, which the doctor had recommended for
therapy." -- "The Gentle People" (1964), by Era Zistel.

* "'But what I mean is that the subject, any subject, has only a sort of fill-in value, like the blank piece in a game of Scrabble.'" -- "Leah: A Novel" (1964), by Seymour Epstein.

* "The woman with the Scrabble game rules waved them in the air. 'Unless you know how to use it,' she sighed, 'a Scrabble game is just a boxful of junk.'" -- "The Billion Dollar Brain" (1966), by Len Deighton.

* "As the Earth Gets Old" (1966 story), by Anne Tyler. Scrabble is the story's chief motif. Alas, I have no excerpt. Here's the New Yorker's abstract:

Mrs. Brauw is the Hopes' landlady and lives next door. She has reduced the rent for 15 year old Joanna and her mother while Mr. Hope is in the sanatorium; out of duty, the Hopes go over to play Scrabble with Mrs. B. and her daughter, Miss Beatrice, several times a week. Mrs. B. cheats but Miss Beatrice wins -- the game is a deadly one between them, at which the Hopes are bystanders. They cease to go when Mrs. B. insults Joanna. One night Joanna wakes to see the Brauw's house on fire. Her mother calls the Fire Dept. Mrs. B. is saved but her daughter dies in the blaze. Mrs. B., staying with the Hopes, seems unconcerned about her daughter, except in saying to Joanna, "There's no way I can try to change things anymore, is there?"
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* Whoops! Almost forgot the scary Scrabble scene in "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), based on Ira Levin's 1967 best-selling horror novel. Excerpt from the novel:

She remembered then the other part of Hutch's message, that the name of the book was an anagram. All Of Them Witches. She tried to juggle the letters in her head, to transpose them into something meaningful, revealing. She couldn't; there were too many of them to keep track of. She needed a pencil and paper. Or better yet, the Scrabble set.... With All Of Them Witches laid out on the board, she jumbled the letters and mixed them around, then looked to see what else could be made of them.
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* "... joined the Communist Party; and everyone else sat nervously under the fateful
umbrella of our nuclear deterrent, playing Scrabble and overeating." -- "Nothing More to Declare" 1967), a memoir by John Clellon Holmes.

* "With our deep sub-conscious minds we seldom dabble/But something must impel/The words we spell/When we're playing 'Scrabble'." -- 1967(?) song lyrics by Noel Coward, for the play "Cowardy Custard."

* "'Ah, well. It was not always thus. On my last trip the Captain wished to play Scrabble using only names of characters, concepts and ideas from my plays.'" -- "G.B.S.-Mark V" (story featuring George Bernard Shaw robot, included in 1969 collection, "I Sing The Body Electric"), by Ray Bradbury.

* "'She thinks we are going to play Scrabble without her," said Ada, "or go through those Oriental gymnastics which, you remember, Van, you began teaching me, as you remember." -- "Ada" (1969), by Vladimir Nabokov.

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* We mustn't forget the erotic/violent Boggle game in "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), based on the 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihy. I don't know if the Boggle game is in the novel. (Oh yeah, and it's Boggle, not Scrabble, anyway.)

* "Once upon a time, about a generation ago, right after the thirteen-thousand-seven hundred-and sixty-fourth demonstration against the war in Vietnam, young people started to congregate in an area of San Francisco known as the Haight Ashbury. They were sick of being programmed by an educational system void of excitement, creativity and sensuality. A system that channeled human beings like so many laboratory rats with electrodes rammed up their asses into a highly mechanized maze of class rankings, degrees, careers, neon supermarkets, military-industrial complexes, suburbs, repressed sexuality, hypocrisy, ulcers and psychoanalysts. The world they came from was a world of Double Speak. A world where Lyndon Johnson and his fabulous wife Lady Bird sat in their Miami-modern ranch house, drank their bourbon, and led the nation in a marathon game of Scrabble. The victor, naturally, would donate the winnings to his or her favorite charity." -- "Woodstock Nation" (1969), by Abbie Hoffman.

* In the second chapter of his autobiography, "Die Nigger Die!" (1969), H. Rap Brown (Justice Minister of the Black Panther Party) recounts that he and other black youth played "the Dozens" -- a rhyming insult game -- as a way to exercise their minds. In fact, he concludes, "We played the Dozens for recreation, like white folks play Scrabble."

* "They obey their mothers. They don't go into a dark cellar without expecting to be strangled by a zombie. They bless themselves constantly. And us, what do we do? We watch television and play Scrabble. So there it is, children of light and darkness." -- "Americana" (1971), by Don DeLillo.

* "After dinner we cleared the table and I got roped into a game of Scrabble with Alice and Marta and Nacho with the others kibbitzing, and all the time I was swilling cold beer with an occasional shot of mescal that Cruz brought into the open now. By nine o'clock when the kids had to go to bed I was pretty well lubricated." -- "The Blue Knight" (1972), by Joseph Wambaugh.

* "She was sitting by herself at a card table with a Scrabble game half finished, an empty coffee cup beside her, looking annoyed as hell. 'Lose your partner?' I asked her." -- "The Erection Set" (1972), by Mickey Spillane.

* "Bloom's door flew open and two kids came in fighting -- knocking over a Scrabble game. One of the combatants picked up the Scrabble board and brought it down..." -- "Students! Do Not Push Your Teacher Down the Stairs on Friday" (1972), by Alan Jones.

"'Spent the weekend with Connie.... Her color TV and stereo are marvelous, but we still find time to play Scrabble (our favorite). She won two out of three games as per usual.'" -- "Sybil" (1973, supposedly factual), by Flora Rheta Schreiber.

"In the evening, I play Scrabble with him for awhile and then he goes back to the TV.
At eleven o'clock, he wants a glass of milk and a liverwurst sandwich to eat while he watches the news. After that he goes to bed." -- "Bitching" (1973), by Marion Meade. (Not fiction.)

The Seventies (1974-83)

"That unmistakable shuffling shoulders-bent walk. Mostly old men but some younger ones, too, in the dull, dusty-maroon bathrobes, sides flapping loosely , like the drooped wings of dying birds.... Evenings there were card games, small get-togethers in the corners of the lounge, Scrabble, backgammon. Leo told him once, 'Stop worrying. You're okay. You can play Scrabble, that means you can concentrate. You're ready.' He had laughed. 'It means you can spell,' he said. 'That doesn't mean [EXPLETIVE].'" -- "Ordinary People" (1976), by Judith Guest.

* "The word 'Scrabble' was like a small bomb exploding in Minderquist's mind or memory. He and Julia didn't play any more. The fact was, Minderquist couldn't concentrate or didn't want to." -- "Mermaids on the Golf Course" (1978 story), by Patricia Highsmith.

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Bukowski

* "'Lydia, sex isn't everything. You are obsessed. For Christ's sake, give it a rest.' 'A rest until your leg heals? How am I going to make it meanwhile?' 'I'll play Scrabble with you.' Lydia screamed. The car began to swerve all over the street. 'YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH! I'LL KILL YOU!'" -- "Women" (1978), by Charles Bukowski.

* "The service was over when I got back to the tabernacle. Mrs. Symes and Melba and a chubby Negro girl in a green dress were in the doctor's room drinking iced tea.... There was a Scrabble board on the bed and the doctor and Melba were playing this word game."-- "The Dog of the South" (1979), by Charles Portis.

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* "What he was doing was rather curious, and this is what it was: on a wide flat piece of rock he had scratched out the shape of a large square, subdivided into one hundred and sixty-nine smaller squares, thirteen to a side... 'No,' said Arthur to one of the natives who had just shuffled some of the letters round in a fit of abysmal dejection, 'Q scores ten you see, and it's on a triple word score, so... look, I've explained the rules to you... no, no, look please, put down that jawbone... All right, we'll start again. And try to concentrate this time." -- "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe" (1980), by Douglas Adams.

* "I began to notice the undeniable link between Vus's journeys and our entertainment schedule.... Trips to Ghana also resulted in proud reports of the Nkrumah government and homey conversations. We three would play Scrabble and listen to music. Then in our dim bedroom, he would take me into his arms delicately." -- "The Heart of a Woman" (1981 autobiography), by Maya Angelou.

* "After dinner, Paul suggested they play Scrabble.... Jane went first with a twenty-two-point word that took advantage of a double-count square and the automatic double score for the first word of the game: BLADE." -- "The Mask" (1981), by Dean Koontz.

The Eighties (1984-93)

* "We had come out, we'd said, for air. But in fact, the endless Scrabble game had bored us.... When we were down the beach, utterly alone, we stopped, wordlessly, as if we'd planned to, and embraced. Her tongue was in my mouth." -- "Prince of Peace" (184), by James Carroll.

* "The young woman [at Buckingham Palace], who has not bothered to introduce herself, leaves [Eddy Bale] in a very high and plush chair beside a card table on which a Scrabble game is still set up. Eddy means to ask about the protocols, but she is gone before he can even frame his question. Bale is able to read a few of the words the players have formed and abandoned -- 'peasant,' 'serf,' 'primogeniture' -- but a child of perhaps seven or eight, either a page or one of the young royals, comes up beside him, and Eddy glances swiftly away as if he has been caught poring over state secrets." -- "The Magic Kingdom" (1985), by Stanley Elkin.

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Margaret Atwood at a Scrabble With The Stars tournament in Toronto, 2006

* There's a Scrabble scene in "The Handmaid's Tale," Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel. Since women are forbidden from reading in the totalitarian, theocratic United States, playing Scrabble is an illicit activity. I don't have an excerpt, I'm afraid.

* "Never mind that I am twenty years Pym's junior. What I recognize in Pym is what I recognize in myself: a spirit so wayward that, even while I am playing a game of Scrabble with my kids it can swing between the options of suicide, rape and assassination." -- "A Perfect Spy" (1986), John Le Carré's most autobiographical novel.

* "The thing Richie remembered about Jimmy Cullum, a quiet little boy who also wore spectacles, was that he liked to play Scrabble on rainy days. Not going to be playing Scrabble any more, Richie thought, and shivered a little." -- "It" (1986), by Stephen King.

* "Every evening I write a letter, sometimes two, while the rest of the world plays Scrabble or watches TV or files its nails or whatever the rest of the world does." -- "Swann" (1987), by Carol Shields.

* "From the day of their first encounter in the Santa Ana foothills, Einstein had gone through spells of purely doggy behavior, when it was hard to believe that he was, in his own way, as intelligent as a man. Tonight, he was in one of those moods again. In spite of his cleverness at Scrabble -- in which his score was second only to Nora's, and in which he took devilish pleasure forming words that made sly references to her as yet unnoticeable pregnancy -- he was nonetheless, this night, more of a dog than not." -- "Watchers" (1987), by Dean Koontz.

* "Once I saw the Frobinesses, when they were still intact, sit down to a a cutthroat game of Scrabble played entirely in silence until the end, when violence erupted." -- "Rich in Love" (1987), by Josephine Humphreys.

* "I never go out anymore, because we never have any money. All we do is [EXPLETIVE] and play Scrabble." -- "Disappearing Acts" (1987), by Terry McMillan.

* "Everybody agreed to want a drink. Jonathan made himself busy, getting them. I realized that was probably how he grew up, ushering things along, proposing drinks or Scrabble games or walks in the park.... He was cultivating a life as orderly and cut off as his mother's Early American living room." -- "A Home at the End of the World" (1990), by Michael Cunningham.

* "I must have been sitting there thinking my juvenile thoughts for quite some time. Martin's patient was well into his solitary Scrabble game. I got up and went to the women's room." -- "The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group" (1991), by Tama Janowitz.

* "Behind the radiation-horror is another so great that it requires agencies to interdict the facts. The life script's playwright is a die; even now the script is not fixed. Smudges change it from one reading to the next. The spectacular species-fan is spelled out in a table-bumped game of Scrabble. Who can go on breathing when mutagens are everywhere in the air?" -- "Gold Bug Variations" (1991), by Richard Powers.

* "My mother, Jasmine, woke up this morning to find the word D-I-V-O-R-C-E written in mirror writing on her forehead with a big black felt pen.... 'Something to do with a game of Scrabble, Tyler. The explanation was blurry,' Daisy said. 'So awful. Such a horrible thing [for Tyler and Daisy's stepfather] to do. Really base. I feel sick.'" -- "Shampoo Planet" (1992), by Douglas Coupland.

* "After graduate school things started to go really wrong.... in a real down spell, I committed myself to a psychiatric hospital in Queens, arguing naively that my sensitivity was becoming a liability for me. This did not turn out to be the name of my problem. I learned to play Scrabble in the hospital, and I learned, a little bit, to care about the welfare of other people." -- from the (autobiographical) introduction to "Garden State" (1992), by Rick Moody.

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"Girl, Interrupted"

* "Georgina was at loose ends without Wade's visits. Because I felt partly responsible for his absence, I offered various distractions. 'Let's redecorate the room,' I said. 'Let's play Scrabble.'" -- "Girl, Interrupted" (1993 memoir), by Susanna Kaysen.

The Nineties (1994-2003)

* "For a couple of hours they played a listless game of Scrabble in front of the fireplace. Around five, Wade went outside with a shovel, slowly working his way from the porch to the driveway. His thoughts were mostly on magic." -- "In the Lake of the Woods" (1994), by Tim O'Brien.

* There's a Scrabble scene in the 1994 movie "Heavenly Creatures." Word: PUTRID.

* "Mary Catherine was accustomed to strange neurological tics because of her work, and she had grown accustomed to her father's peculiarities over the months that she had been putting him through daily therapy.... Cozzano's left hand spun the board around so that Mary Catherine could see the words DID YOU SEE MEL. She looked up into his eyes. He was frowning, staring down at the Scrabble board, befuddled. 'How did those words get there?' he asked." -- "Interface" (1994), by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George.

* "I'd passed a couple of hours in front of the television with Philly, watching Edward G. Robinson pad around Pharaonic Memphis in sandals; then let myself be drawn into a sullen game of Scrabble with Irv and Irene." -- "Wonder Boys" (1995), by Michael Chabon.

* "She and I were in the offices of Smeets Velde Kerkplein, which, if nothing else, would presumably score you something pretty decent in a game of Scrabble...." -- "The Gun Seller" (1996), by Hugh Laurie.

* UPDATE: Reader Daniel P sent this one in:

I just finished John Shannon's first crime novel -- "The Concrete River" (1996) -- and in the final scene, exhausted, injured, lovelorn and broke, our noir hero sits down to a game of Scrabble with his daughter, and tears stream down his face. It's actually not as maudlin as that sounds, and actually kind of great. Scrabble's still linked here to some of the things Josh mentions -- but here it's figured as an antidote. Here Scrabble is meant to be seen as One Small Good Thing in an inscrutable and at times altogether unpleasant universe.

* "The thoughts that came to her, of Jeffrey, were not really thoughts at all -- they were more like alterations in her body. This could happen [in] the middle of Monopoly games, Scrabble games, card games. She went right on talking, listening, working, keeping track of the children, while some memory of her secret life disturbed her like a radiant explosion." -- "The Children Stay" (a story in the 1998 collection, "The Love of A Good Woman," by Alice Munro.

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* "Robin looked away, across the street, at a row of dead buildings with rusting sheet-metal cornices. 'Brian says you're very competitive.... He said he wouldn't want to play Scrabble with you." -- "The Corrections" (2001), by Jonathan Franzen.

* "That night, I eat a Lean Cuisine prepared by Miguel. Later, he and I play Scrabble, which I win handily, since he doesn't speak English. I go to my bunk and try to sleep. I can hear that Captain Motley and Lucia are having guttural, desperate sex in the cabin above." -- "The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature" (2001), by Neal Pollack.

* "His head lowered in reverence, the dark islander put out a set of fetish objects, like a shaman engrossed in a ritual for telling the future or interpreting the past.... His face was close to a painted square that was blocked with the sort of mystical patterns you find in the boldest mandalas of Oceania.... Peewee hurried behind me and said. 'You want to play?' It was Scrabble." -- "Hotel Honolulu" (200), by Paul Theroux.

* "After this exchange, which was really the purpose of our visit, we would all three play Scrabble, my mother forgetting her turn when it came around, Veronica taking forever with her word and then misspelling it, after which I'd correct her." -- "The Furies" (2004), by Janet Hobhouse.

* "Well," [Jemma] said to Vivian. "I think I'm ready. Would you send the kids in?" She'd asked for her class to be there, to watch and maybe to learn and maybe even to help, or maybe because to involve them, even in the most peripheral way, was more like teaching them something than were games of Scrabble, picnics, and her cheating game of hide-and-go-seek." -- "The Children's Hospital" (2006), by Chris Adrian.

NB: I skipped over 100 or so works of fiction published from 2003-07 that contained the phrase "play Scrabble," only because I hadn't heard of them. My ignorance of contemporary fiction is appalling, I know! Or maybe they were all forgettable books.

ALSO

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* In an interview, Graham Greene once recounted that Michael Meyer, famous as a translator of Ibsen, visited him in Tahiti in the 1950s, when Greene was working on "A Burnt-Out Case."

[Meyer is] a very nice person. I'm very fond of him. And I used to get up at six o'clock and I'd be finished [writing] by nine-thirty, and he was complaining it was too hot to work, so we'd play Scrabble. I fought him about a word in 'Macbeth.'

* In "The Magic Never Ends," an oral history of the life of C.S. Lewis, we learn that the "Narnia" author and his wife, Joy, loved Scrabble. According to Joy's daughter:

They had their own rather unique rules for Scrabble. They would take one board and both sets of letters from two Scrabble sets. And then they would proceed to play Scrabble, allowing all known languages, whether factual or fictional, and they would fill the whole board with words.

* In "The Mitford Bedside Companion," we find Jessica Mitford -- author of "Hons and Rebels" and "The American Way of Death" -- expressing the hope that, in her old age, she will find herself in an Italian villa:

My loved ones will be there, I fondly hope, and we shall eat and laugh and walk in the garden and play Scrabble and read aloud to one another -- the Psalms and Wordsworth and Cowper and Herrick and the lovely George Herbert -- trying not to waste a minute of the beautiful life that remains...

Mitford clearly believes that playing Scrabble is not a waste of time; quite the contrary.

UPDATE: I found a French website devoted to "Scrabble et cinema." Very helpful.

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3 comments so far...
  1. Google Book Search turns up a lot of pre-1963 references, including several plays and this from "One of the Crowd", a 1961 young adult novel by Rosamond Neal Du Jardin: "And you could make some fudge and I'd beat you at Scrabble—or maybe your parents would play some bridge with us." Midge smiled back at him." (http://books.google.com/books?lr=&q=play+scrabble+date:1900-1963&as_brr=0&sa=N&start=70) Of course, the selection in Google Book Search is even more eccentric than Amazon Book Search.

    Posted by Joel December 26, 07 05:43 PM
  1. Although that particular excerpt doesn't seem to tell us much about Scrabble's place in the zeitgeist, I will try Google Book Search, too. Many thanks, Joel!

    Posted by Josh Glenn December 27, 07 05:32 PM
  1. The 1992 movie Sneakers with Robert Redford had a game of Scrabble, where upon Redford's realization scrambled to use Scrabble pieces to reassemble the words, "Seatec Astronomy", which believe it or not, was a pivotal scene after finding that it had also spelled out "No more secrets".

    Posted by Dave January 21, 08 02:24 PM
 
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