The puzzler One man's quest to solve the most baffling puzzles ever, from crosswords to jigsaws to the meaning of life

A. J. Jacobs, 1968-

Book - 2022

"The New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically goes on a journey to understand the enduring power of puzzles: why we love them, what they do to our brains, and how they can improve our world"--

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2nd Floor 793.73/Jacobs Checked In
Travel writing
New York : Crown [2022]
Main Author
A. J. Jacobs, 1968- (author)
Other Authors
Greg Pliska (contributor)
First edition
Physical Description
xvi, 342 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 289-299).
  • Introduction
  • Crosswords
  • The puzzles of puzzles
  • The Rubik's cube
  • Anagrams
  • Rebuses
  • Jigsaws
  • Mazes
  • Math and logic puzzles
  • Ciphers and secret codes
  • Visual puzzles
  • Sudoku and KenKen
  • Chess puzzles (chess problems)
  • Riddles
  • Japanese puzzle boxes
  • Controversial puzzles
  • Cryptics
  • Scavenger hunts and puzzle hunts
  • Infinite puzzles
  • The Puzzler contest
  • An original puzzle hunt by Greg Pliska
  • Puzzle resources
  • Solutions
  • Hints to the original puzzle hunt by Greg Pliska
  • Solutions to the original puzzle hunt by Greg Pliska.
Review by Booklist Review

Jacobs explores the puzzling world of puzzles in this ridiculously entertaining book. Readers familiar with his previous books, including The Know-It-All (2004) and The Year of Living Biblically (2007), will know that this author tends to take a hands-on approach to his material. He doesn't just write about something--he lives it. Here, he evolves from a guy who is generally ambivalent about puzzles to a serious enthusiast. He enters competitions, gets to know some of the bigwigs of the puzzling world (it really is a fascinating subculture), and ruminates on some of life's bigger questions and how puzzles can sometimes point us toward the answers. He writes in a light, conversational style, as though he were sitting in our living rooms and telling us a story or two. He makes us think without making a big deal about it, telling us what puzzling came to mean to him and inviting us to join him in his voyage of discovery. The book is a lot of fun, but it's the serious stuff that gives it weight.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

"Puzzles are not a waste of time. Doing puzzles can make us better thinkers, more creative, more incisive, more persistent," argues journalist and avid puzzler Jacobs (The Know-It-All) in this riveting cultural analysis. Showcasing his knack for immersive detail with fascinating takes on crosswords, jigsaws, and secret codes, he makes a convincing case that, beyond helping "stav off dementia" (which, he writes, there's "mild evidence" for), puzzles can make people more evolved humans by requiring them to adopt "a mindset of ceaseless curiosity about everything in the world." For centuries, he writes, anagrams have fueled humans' obsessions with hidden meanings--Galileo loved them so much that he hid his discoveries in anagrammatic poems. And visual puzzles, such as Where's Waldo, encourage people to question their first impressions and examine their surroundings more closely. Jacobs enriches his narrative with interviews with puzzle designers and devotees, along with accounts of his attending several puzzle tournaments--among them a jigsaw championship in Spain where he proudly placed "second to last." The inclusion of tools to crack the code to all sorts of puzzles, and a section of original work by famed puzzler Greg Pliska, only add to the infectious charm. A rallying cry for "word nerds" everywhere, this is a delight. (Apr.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

This multifaceted memoir explores Jacobs's (Thanks a Thousand) personal relationship with puzzles but also discusses the broader history (and controversies) of puzzles. Jacobs is himself a crossword enthusiast, but for this book he branches out to research puzzles outside his wheelhouse (math and word puzzles; Rubik's Cubes; mazes; riddles) and engagingly interviews puzzle experts. He also offers his own theories as to why people love to puzzle and why the English language works so well for word puzzles. This book shines for its interactive format, featuring more than 100 historical puzzles, plus 10 original puzzles created for the book by Greg Pliska (hints and solutions are included). It also offers a challenge: Jacobs has hidden a secret puzzle in the book and says that the first reader to solve it will win a cash prize of $10,000. VERDICT A fun, interactive exploration of the history and hidden world of puzzles. A must-read for puzzle enthusiasts of all skill levels.--Cate Triola

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

The George Plimpton of thought experiments takes readers on a wide-ranging tour of puzzles, from crosswords to mazes and beyond. In his latest foray into lighthearted, experiential journalism, Jacobs opens with the thrilling discovery that he'd been used as a clue in a New York Times crossword puzzle--a thrill lessened somewhat by appearing in the hard-to-solve Saturday edition, "proof that I'm totally obscure, the very embodiment of irrelevance." Undeterred, the author, a puzzle addict whose interests embrace not just crosswords, but also "mazes, secret codes, riddles, logic puzzles," and other nerdy pursuits, embarked on a quest to find puzzle makers and solvers in dusty warrens, convention centers, and other venues. TheTimes, he discovered, was late in the game when it came to crosswords, having sniffed that they were "too lowbrow, too frivolous." Under the guidance of the learned but democratically minded Will Shortz, the paper has become the gold standard of crosswords. Throughout, Jacobs ventures theories on how the puzzles sharpen the brain, help us solve real-world problems, and "are an existential grasp at certainty and closure in an uncertain world." Sometimes they induce despair, as the author's early encounters with the Rubik's Cube reveal. He was hardly more cheered after an international jigsaw-puzzle competition in which he was bested by a "man from Uganda who later told me he is color-blind." Corn mazes, secret codes, chess gambits, the river-crossing problem, and the Tower of Hanoi: Jacobs is refreshingly captivated by every kind of mental challenge, it seems, and his enthusiasm serves this lively--and puzzle-stuffed--book well. The author even proves to be his own riddler, promising that there is a secret puzzle hidden in the book, the first solver of which will receive $10,000: "I figured I couldn't write a book on puzzles that didn't contain a secret one itself." A barrel of monkeys' worth of fun for the puzzle addict in the household. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Introduction One winter morning several years ago, I got an email with some ridiculously exciting news. Or so I thought. The email was from a friend who informed me that the answer to 1-Down in that day's New York Times crossword puzzle was . . . me. The clue was "A.J. _______, author of The Know-It-All ." My first reaction was This is the greatest moment of my life. My marriage and the births of my kids, yes, those were pretty good. But this! As a word nerd since childhood, this was the holy grail! And then, a couple of hours later, I got another email that changed everything. It came from my brother-in-law. He congratulated me but went out of his way to point out that my name was featured in the Saturday edition of the New York Times puzzle. As crossword fans know, Saturday is the hardest puzzle of the week. Monday's is the easiest, with each day's grid getting more and more difficult until Saturday, when the puzzle reaches peak impenetrability. Saturday is the killer, the one with the most obscure clues, harder than Sunday. We're talking clues like Francisco Goya's ethnic heritage (Aragonese). Or the voice of the car in the sitcom My Mother the Car (Ann Sothern). Stuff no normal person knows. So my brother-in-law's implication--or at least my interpretation-- was that my Saturday appearance was the opposite of a compliment. Unlike a Monday or Tuesday mention, it's actually proof that I'm totally obscure, the very embodiment of irrelevance. Dammit. I could see his point. No doubt this wasn't the most charitable interpretation, and my rational side knew I shouldn't let it tarnish my elation. But I couldn't help it. I'm a master of focusing on the negative once it's shown to me. It's like the arrow in the FedEx logo. I can't unsee it. My life's highlight now had a galling asterisk. Then, a couple of years later, my crossword adventure took another twist. I was on a podcast, and I told the tale of my emotional roller coaster. Well, it turns out one of the people listening to the podcast was a New York Times crossword creator. God bless him, he decided to take pity on me and save me from my end-of-the-week shadows. He wrote a puzzle with me as the answer to 1-Across, and submitted it to run on a Tuesday. Legendary crossword editor Will Shortz let it through. And that became the true greatest moment of my life. I know full well I don't belong in a Tuesday puzzle. It's where truly famous names like Biden and Gaga make their home. I was thrilled to sneak in as an interloper. I mean, it's not Monday, but it's more than I could have hoped. I emailed the crossword creator, who has since become a friend, and thanked him. He said it was no problem. Though he admitted that, to compensate, he had to make the corresponding down clues super-easy, like TV Guide -crossword-puzzle easy. I'm okay with that. As I hinted, there's a reason my crossword cameos made me ecstatic beyond what is appropriate. Namely, I've been crazy for puzzles all my life. Partly I inherited this passion from my family. When my dad was in the army in Korea and my mom was stateside, they'd keep in touch by sending a puzzle back and forth, each filling out a clue or two per turn. Not the most efficient method but certainly romantic. So I was introduced to crosswords early. But I wasn't monogamous when it came to puzzles. I embraced all kinds: mazes, secret codes, riddles, logic puzzles. As a kid who was not in danger of being recruited to varsity teams, nor burdened with a time-consuming dating schedule, I spent my spare time on puzzles. My bookshelf was filled with titles like "Brain-busters" or "Brain-twisters" or "Brain-teasers"-- anything involving mental sadism. I programmed mazes on my school's Radio Shack computer. I did hundreds of mix-and-matches in Games magazine. Puzzles were my solace. My enthusiasm didn't wane as I grew older. Like my parents, I married a fellow puzzle lover. It's her job, in fact. My wife, Julie, works at a company that puts on scavenger hunts for corporations, as well as private events. Our weekends often involve escape rooms or games of Mastermind with our three sons. For my birthday a couple of years ago, my son Zane created an elaborate mental obstacle course that included Sudoku, Rubik's Cubes, and anagrams. It took me two weeks to crack, which didn't impress him. I've even tried to recruit our dog, Stella, into the puzzle cult. I buy her these "doggie puzzles" where she has to flip open a latch to get her doggie treat. The manufacturer claims it will keep her canine brain stimulated, though I'm guessing Stella's brain is mostly thinking "Next time, asshole, just give me the peanut butter on a spoon." After my appearance as 1-Down a few years back, I went from being an occasional crossword solver to a frequent one, perhaps unconsciously hoping I'd reappear. I did the Times crossword every day. At first, I only solved a smattering of words in the harder puzzles. But eventually, after years of practice, I could reliably finish Saturday's puzzles. My addiction became a problem. One day, I decided I wasn't getting enough accomplished in my life and I should quit all puzzles. I figured it would free up several hours every week. Who knows what I could get done? Maybe I'd start a podcast or run a triathlon or build a barn! The experiment was a failure. After two months, I relapsed, and I relapsed hard. Puzzles once again began to mark the start and end of my day. Now, as soon as I wake up, I check my iPhone for the New York Times Spelling Bee, a find-a-word game that is both compelling and maddening (What?! You're telling me "ottomen" isn't a word? Then what's the plural of "ottoman"?!). Before going to sleep, I do Wordle and the Times crossword puzzle. Since my relapse, I've come to two important realizations about puzzles. 1) I'm not a great puzzler. I mean, I'm okay. But as I started to meet real puzzlers, I got an insight into a whole other league. I realized I'm like the guy who plays decent intramural basketball, but is no match for the LeBron Jameses and Kevin Durants. 2) Puzzles can make us better people. Okay, there's a pretty good chance this is more of a rationalization than a realization--a way to justify all the mental energy I spend on puzzles. But rationalization or not, I believe it deeply: puzzles are not a waste of time. Doing puzzles can make us better thinkers, more creative, more incisive, more persistent. I'm not just talking about staving off dementia and keeping our minds sharp. Yes, there's some mild evidence that doing crossword puzzles might help delay cognitive decline (it's probably not just puzzles that help--any mental challenge might delay dementia, whether it's puzzles or learning a new language). I'm talking about something more global. It's been my experience that puzzles can shift our worldview. They can nudge us to adopt the puzzle mindset--a mindset of ceaseless curiosity about everything in the world, from politics to science to human relationships--and a desire to find solutions. These insights sparked the idea for the book you are holding now. I decided to embrace my passion and do a deep dive into the puzzle world. I pledged to embed myself with the world's greatest puzzle solvers, creators, and collectors and learn their secrets. I'd try to crack the hardest puzzles in each genre, from jigsaws to crosswords to Sudoku. My hope is that the adventures and revelations I had will be entertaining and useful, whether you are a puzzle fanatic, a puzzle skeptic, or a full-on puzzlephobe. Excerpted from The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life by A. J. Jacobs All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.