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Stretch your puzzle muscles! A.J. Jacobs talks his new book “The Puzzler”

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For many of us, puzzles are a part of our daily lives.

Every day, millions of people dedicate time and energy to solving puzzles. Whether we’re talking about word-based puzzles like crosswords and cryptics or mechanical puzzles like Rubik’s Cubes and Japanese puzzle boxes, there are people out there devoting their leisure to finding solutions. Chess problems and riddles and jigsaw puzzles – the list goes on and on. If you’re so inclined, there’s a type of puzzle out there for just about everyone.

And A.J. Jacobs decided to try just as many as he could.

Those attempts have resulted in a new book, titled “The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life” (Crown, $28) and currently available wherever books are sold. It’s an effort to delve into not just his own deep, lifelong connection to puzzles, but also to the world in which puzzlers operate; he runs the gamut of genres, all to explore just what it is that attracts us to puzzles and the value that that attraction can add to other aspects of our lives.

It's the latest work of participatory nonfiction from Jacobs, who has previously penned such books as “The Year of Living Biblically” and “Thanks a Thousand.” He spent years traveling the world, engaging with elite puzzlers – makers and solvers alike – to help bring to light the low-key obsession that so many people share, the ongoing quest for that “aha” moment that is in many ways unique to puzzling.

(You can find our full review of "The Puzzler" here.)

Jacobs was kind enough to carve out some time from his busy schedule to join me over Zoom for a freewheeling conversation about the book, about puzzles and about why so many people are enamored with a hobby built upon the struggles inherent to our participation in it.

The first question was a simple one: Why puzzles? Turns out, they’ve been a lifelong fascination.

“Well, puzzles have been a love of mine since I was a kid,” said Jacobs. “I subscribed to Games magazine, and I would make these huge pencil mazes on my living room floor that took up the whole living room.”

Jacobs came by his affinity for puzzles honestly; in his case, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

“My family is a puzzling family,” he said. “I talked in the introduction about how my parents love crosswords. And when my dad was stationed in Korea, they would actually send a crossword back and forth, which seems like a very inefficient way to do a romance. So I realized also that it informed my worldview, I think – fueled my curiosity. I think that it made me see the world as a series of puzzles.”

He also believes that his puzzling tendencies informed his work even before he devoted an entire book specifically to them.

“In a sense, I realized you could view my previous books as metaphorical puzzles, like ‘The Year of Living Biblically’ was about the puzzle of religion or ‘Thanks A Thousand’ was about how to be grateful in a world where it's sometimes hard to be grateful. So I finally decided maybe I should stop beating around the bush and actually do non-metaphorical puzzles and pursue my passion and just spend a couple of years deeply immersed in them, seeing why I love them, why you love them, why millions of others love them. What benefits, if any, can they provide? I do believe they are a force for good. The history of the science, the joy of the whole thing. And that's what I ended up doing.”

Now, Jacobs has his first puzzle love – crosswords. But there are so many other kinds of puzzles out there that he found himself drawn toward exploring some of the many other subgenres of puzzling.

“I actually think I was I was very, I don't know, very promiscuous in my love of puzzles early on,” Jacobs said. “As a kid, I loved all kinds. And then I kind of got locked into crosswords. But when I decided to write this book, I rediscovered my joy of all these different genres.”

It wasn’t necessarily as easy as all that, however. Jacobs carried some biases against certain types of puzzles, almost a puzzle elitism. But as his research continued, he found himself reevaluating some of those feelings.

“I was very reluctant about some of them,” he said “I was a snob about jigsaw puzzles, for instance. I thought they were sort of the loser of puzzles. I was wrong, though I was slow to admit it. I had a change of heart. I am a jigsaw convert now.

“But what I love is that each puzzle stretches a different part of the brain and requires different fun, innovative thinking, and gives you a different aha moment, which is what all puzzlers crave, that little hit of dopamine when you get the solution. And they all have different ways of doing it.

“I also love discovering puzzle genres I knew nothing about, like Japanese puzzle boxes. I don't think I'd heard of that phrase, but they are a huge cult phenomenon. People pay upwards of $40,000 for these beautiful little wooden works of art that double as puzzles.”

As you might imagine, this sort of immersion definitely led toward a sort of evolution with regard to how Jacobs looked at puzzles, pushing him somewhat out of his comfort zone to discover a whole different kind of joy. Take mechanical puzzles, for instance.

“It wasn't just the wooden boxes,” he said. “I mean, so first of all, I am very bad with spatial thinking, I've never been good at the Rubik's Cube mechanical puzzles genre, but I got into it more. I'm still a word nerd at heart. That is still my true love. But these were good sort of, I don't know, side hustles to enjoy?”

Jacobs also found himself entering the realm of chess puzzles, or chess problems, as they’re known to those who craft and solve them. His entry point was, as it likely was to many recent converts to chess enthusiasm, the arrival of a certain extremely popular Netflix show.

“I didn't know anything about chess puzzles,” said Jacobs. “Basically - and I’m embarrassed to admit this – I saw ‘The Queen's Gambit,’ which came out while I was writing this, and it was like everyone on planet Earth watched it. And I said, ‘Oh, I guess I have to do a chess chapter.’ So I looked into it. As it turns out, chess puzzlers are another cult phenomenon that is totally different than chess players. They have their own superstars and their own language, and it's just hilarious. And the history they've got; Nabokov was a huge chess puzzle fan.”

One particular brand of chess problem that I found fascinating was something referred to by those in the know as the “Grotesque.” Basically, it’s a chess problem that could essentially never occur in the context of an actual game of chess. Rather, it is a meticulously constructed and complex problem that demands a very different perspective that that of a player. So I asked Jacobs if he could think of any similar examples from other puzzling realms.

“I mean, I think that is my favorite part,” he said. “The creativity of taking a traditional puzzle form and just messing with it until it's unrecognizable. These people LOVE to do that because they love their twisted, you know, the cliche is ‘out of the box’ thinking. As I say in the book, the term has its origins in puzzles. That's where the cliche comes from, so I feel okay saying it, knowing that it's actually in the puzzle genre. But yeah, there are tons.”

From there, Jacobs went on to recount some of his favorite devilishly difficult puzzles, ones that he cheerfully described as evil. He mentioned a company called Stave, based in Vermont, that makes jigsaw puzzles like no other. These are puzzles with nontraditional shapes, puzzles designed with holes in the middle or with extra pieces included in the box. Fiendishly hard. He also alluded to what he called “mutant” Rubik’s Cubes, variations that are huge or – and this one just sounds mean – that change color as you manipulate them. He also mentions the notion of the anti-riddle – a riddle without an actual answer – using Lewis Carroll’s famous “How is a raven like a writing desk?” riddle from “Alice in Wonderland.” Still, for many solvers, this sort of extremity is the point. Different puzzlers are looking for different levels of challenge.

But what about the people who MAKE these puzzles. One assumes that solvers and constructors share a lot of similar qualities, but I asked Jacobs what he thought some of the fundamental differences between the two might be.

“I feel that constructors have to be a little bit sadistic and solvers have to be a little masochistic,” he said. “I actually did create puzzles just to see what it was like. And I have to say, parts of it I enjoyed. I just don't think I'm sadistic enough because I would watch these people trying to solve it and I would just blurt out the answer because I couldn't stand the pain. But a good puzzle maker has to love that. Now, they can't be totally sadistic. They have to be partially sadistic. They have to want the person to get the answer eventually, but they have to want the person to suffer before they get the answer because the suffering increases the pleasure of the ‘aha’ moment. If it's totally easy, the whole moment is blah. But if you work at it, then you get that almost orgasmic feeling when you solve it.”

So how did the effort to make some puzzles of his own impact his own puzzle-solving tendencies?

“The idea is you have to look at the world,” he said. “That's one thing. One of the many benefits of puzzles is being able to see the world from a different perspective. To make a good one, you've got to get in the shoes of the puzzler and have a mind meld with them.

“I think it's made me a much clearer thinker in many ways,” he continued. “One is just doing logic puzzles, but another is being aware of language. And since I'm a word nerd, crosswords and a lot of the wordplay ones are all about different meanings.”

(This is where I will note that Jacobs has included, among the myriad other puzzles within the pages of his book, a puzzle hunt of sorts. The starting point is encoded in the book’s introduction, leading those who find it on a wide-ranging puzzle journey that will end, for one lucky participant, in a $10,000 prize. Yes, really. For more information – and access to the book’s introduction – visit www.thepuzzlerbook.com. That’s right – no purchase necessary.)

But what about the puzzles that you can never quite solve? Everyone has their own level of skill and commitment when it comes to puzzles – what happens when you encounter one that’s beyond your abilities? Does A.J. Jacobs ever walk away from an unfinished puzzle?

Yes. Yes, he does.

“So many times?” he said with a laugh. “And I think it's okay. I think that it's a good lesson in being okay with uncertainty and not finishing, because life is often uncertain and sometimes you do have to walk away. That's my rationalization.

“In the book, I mentioned that we I wanted to do the biggest jigsaw puzzle ever, and I bought it and it was just so big and dull. I like puzzle jigsaws, as I say, but like a 45,000-piece jigsaw puzzle where it's not even that fun. A jigsaw puzzle. There were all these city scenes and we did it for like a month. Then I tried to outsource it to my niece, who's a great jigsaw puzzler, and she did one of the cities. And then we all just gave up. So that one I'm proud to have walked away from.”

Jacobs also mentioned a number of other puzzles he tackled in the book, from Japanese puzzle boxes to the legendary Kryptos sculpture puzzle at CIA headquarters to the coded diaries of Abraham Maslow’s teenage years, that he never solved. He’s also very forthcoming throughout the book regarding times where he enlisted the assistance of others to solve particularly trying puzzles.

You’ll be unsurprised to hear that a book like this takes a tremendous amount of time to put together. The research required alone is staggering, with Jacobs speaking to all manner of titans of the puzzling world, traveling not just to meet individuals, but also to participate in various elite competitions – the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship, for example, or the legendarily difficult MIT Puzzle Hunt. An initial timeline of 18 months ballooned to three years, due in part to pandemic circumstances, but also to the fact that Jacobs just kept wanting to do puzzles.

I get it.

Puzzles are part of our lives, whether it’s a crossword or a Rubik’s Cube or a chess problem. Heck, maybe you’re just one of the legions of Wordle fans who discovered the joy of that particular puzzle. There’s something wonderful – particularly in these trying times – about the idea of dealing with a problem that absolutely has a solution, even if it takes some doing to uncover it. Finding order in a disordered world, seeking that eureka moment when all the tumblers click into place – that’s why we puzzle.

Last modified on Wednesday, 27 April 2022 09:33

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