Why Wordle is the ultimate book lover’s game

Along with 300,000 others, Wintering author Katherine May is obsessed with Wordle. Here, she explains why it’s perfect for bookworms.

Katherine May
A completed Wordle puzzle, spelling 'novel', with people playing it on either side
Bookish masterminds: Wordle. Image: Vicky Ibbetson/Penguin

Today, just like every other, I will spend the first part of my morning trying to guess a five letter word.

Like the sentimental fool I am, I start my daily Wordle – a free online game that has become a phenomenon - with a different word each time, scanning my bookshelves for a suitable candidate. I harbour the creeping suspicion that there is a better strategy than this; that it is possible to deploy some kind of an uber-word that unlocks the exact combination of vowels. This would be wise, but I am not. I want to believe that there is a meaning behind it all, some kind of hidden message that is transmitted in this word each day. Therefore, I try to ride the zeitgeist and guess it in one.

This never happens. Instead, I enter my chosen word into a grid and receive, in return, a series of coloured squares: grey, yellow, and green. I make a second attempt, and then a third. There are fraught minutes when I wonder whether I actually know this word, or whether it could be too obscure for me; whether I am equal to this challenge. Sometimes, I feel the heady kick of logic take over, the whirr of deduction and reason. So far, in the six iterations I’m allowed, I have always found the word. I dread the day when this does not occur.

As with most things, I came to Wordle late, but now I have the zeal of the converted. Created by American software engineer Josh Wardle for his word-game obsessive partner, it was released to the world in October – for free – and has become a daily obsession across the globe. The New York Times called it “a love story”; The Guardian has printed a guide to success based on linguistic theory; last week, the BBC broke the story that it would stay free, forever.

Part of Wordle’s appeal is the way that it rations itself, allowing just one play a day, and no access to an archive of the previous games. This is, in itself, beguiling. Worldle is the puzzle that plays hard to get. It frustrates my ambition to master it, and always leaves me wanting more.

But what Wordle does so well - what makes it so irresistibly viral - is to create its own narrative

With over 300,000 players worldwide, clearly I’m not the only one. We word-nerds are legion, and we love a mystery. We pore over crosswords and quizzes, and treat Scrabble as our chess, an exercise in pure, brutal logic that demands a certain detachment from the actual meanings that tessellate over the board.

But what Wordle does so well - what makes it so irresistibly viral - is to create its own narrative. It invites you to share, either smugly or dispirited through Twitter or Whatsapp, an ingenious little grid that shows your progress without revealing the actual letters. Depending on your perspective, this is either intriguing or annoying, but the game benefits either way. It captures our attention. It sends out its spores. It creates communities in which to reproduce.

There has long been a link between readership and solving. Think of the riddles baked into literature, whether by Shakespeare or Jane Austen. Solving riddles saved the lives of Bilbo and Harry Potter, and challenged Alice in her Adventures in Wonderland. James Joyce turned riddles inside out with Ulysses, while TS Eliot turned them into poetry. Wordle fans may do well to take inspiration from A Void, by Georges Perec – a book written entirely without the letter ‘e’.

But our desire to solve goes beyond wordplay. Who hasn’t tried to reason along with the sleuth, to test our powers of observation against Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot? We binge on new TV crime serials in collective ecstasy, rolling the facts around in our minds as if we, too, are part of the team.

Wordle takes us one step further. Here, for a few glorious minutes each day, we do battle with a mastermind. Every now and then, we think we glimpse a logic behind their decisions. Other times, it’s just trial and error. Either way, we are caught in a web of intrigue. We love being part of the game.

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