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edge staff writer


‘The Puzzler’ a deft and delightful literary solution

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Full disclosure: I love puzzles.

Specifically, I love crossword puzzles. As a bit of a word nerd, I love the process of working my way through a crossword, bringing together bits of trivia and deft wordplay to steadily fill in that black and white grid. I am a cruciverbalist at heart.

But puzzling is far more than just crossword puzzles. The world is filled with different sorts of puzzles – riddles and ciphers, cryptics and jigsaws and Rubik’s Cubes, chess problems and Sudoku grids – all with enthusiastic fans devoting their free time to discerning solutions.

A.J Jacobs loves puzzles too. So much so, in fact that he has written a whole book about them and the people who love them.

“The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life” (Crown, $28) is a fascinating journey through the puzzling world, a look at the many different varieties of puzzle and the people whose lives are shaped by them. All of it viewed through the eyes of one very dedicated – and very talented – chronicler.

Jacobs connects with iconic figures from the puzzling realm. He travels the globe, meeting legendary puzzlemakers and competing against some of the most gifted solvers in the world. And he digs into what it means to solve a puzzle, why we as humans are so fascinated with pushing ourselves toward difficult solutions, deriving pleasure from the intellectual pain.

Each chapter of the book is devoted to a different kind of puzzle. But while these puzzles might be wildly different from one another – as are the people who solve them – they all share that aspirational, inspirational quality. They want to be solved and we want to solve them, finding a singular solution in a world that sometimes feels a bit too crowded with gray areas.

He starts with his first love – crossword puzzles. His fascination with the form began at a young age; he comes from a family of puzzlers (there’s a lovely anecdote about how crosswords played into his parents’ relationship when they were separated by distance) and has long been a devotee.

A self-described word nerd, we venture down a variety of word puzzle paths alongside him over the course of the book. He digs into the verbal scramblings that are anagrams and the too-rich-for-my-blood crossover complexity of cryptics. Extending the word nerdery a bit further, we get chapters on riddles and ciphers as well.

But puzzles are more than words.

There are a couple of chapters that focus on mechanical puzzles. We spend some times with the foremost practitioners of the Rubik’s Cube, both the traditional cube and the Frankensteinian evolution of the puzzle, with 12-sided “cubes” and cubes whose sides change color as you solve them. He also spends a lot of time on Japanese puzzle boxes, a world with which I was unfamiliar, but that is absolutely saturated with brilliant craftspeople who have dedicated their lives toward the construction of meticulous and delicate boxes intended to please aesthetically as much as they do intellectually.

You might think of jigsaw puzzles and mazes as mere kid stuff, but those genres too have their makers who are as dedicated to the fiendish difficulty of their craft as any. Even Jacobs concedes he started off as a jigsaw snob before learning just how challenging they can be.

And on and on we go. Jacobs meets with Garry Kasparov to discuss the world of chess problems, one only tangentially connected to the games as it is meant to be played. He signs up for the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship with his family; they end up as the U.S. team. He takes on the legendary Kryptos, a sculpture puzzle located at CIA headquarters in Langley that has yet to be solved in 32 years. He takes part in the MIT Puzzle Hunt, a puzzle-based scavenger hunt so fiendishly difficult that participating teams enlist as many as 50 people to take part.

(One of my favorite chapters is the one simply titled “Infinite Puzzles.” I’m not going to tell you anything else because with a chapter heading like that, I don’t need to.)

And interspersed throughout – puzzles. What? You didn’t think someone would write a book about puzzles and not include puzzles, did you?

Some of the puzzles are pulled from history, offering a chance to see how various types have evolved over the years. Others are original to the book, with Jacobs teaming up with master puzzlemaker Greg Plishka to build a number of unique puzzles for readers to enjoy.

And then, of course, there’s the big one.

See, Jacobs – drawing inspiration from the 1979 book “Masquerade,” which contained puzzles that led to a golden rabbit statue that had been buried somewhere in Britain by author Kit Williams – has put a treasure hunt of his own in the pages of “The Puzzler.”

Beginning on May 3, a series of puzzles will be released on Those puzzles can only be accessed if you discern the clue hidden within the book’s introduction. It should be noted that the intro is free to access at the website – no purchase is necessary to play.

“The Puzzler” is an exceptional work of stunt nonfiction, a book wherein the author has placed themselves at the center of the story. It’s a continuation of the long history of participatory journalism – one in which Jacobs has already distinguished himself with earlier works such as the best-selling “The Year of Living Biblically.”

But while there’s a gimmickry at play here, the book doesn’t feel reliant on the gimmick. This is not a stunt for stunt’s sake. Jacobs is palpably passionate about his subject matter here, making his presence within the narrative not just acceptable but welcome. It’s impossible not to be swept up in his love of puzzles; we can’t help but experience that joy vicariously through him. And again, it doesn’t hurt that he’s given us plenty of ways to play along.

Indeed, it is the elements of memoir that elevate this book. By getting to know Jacobs, we’re given yet more insight into the world of puzzlers through the eyes of one of their own. It is a rich and idiosyncratic realm into which we’re being introduced; luckily, we have a deft and accomplished guide in A.J. Jacobs.

“The Puzzler” is an utter delight, a charming and informative work of nonfiction that evokes both the joys of its subject and the spirit of its author. If you’ve ever taken a shot at a Sudoku or done an escape room or just spent a few morning minutes with Wordle, you’ll dig this.

In short, if the puzzle is what to read next, Jacobs has given you the solution.

Last modified on Wednesday, 27 April 2022 09:15


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