Photo: Lem Lattimer
In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs says there's a puzzle for everyone, and shares how they have shaped history, brought people together and made them better thinkers. / BY Sydney Loney / April 21st, 2022
A.J. Jacobs spends an hour each day puzzling. He starts his mornings with The New York Times Spelling Bee and fills in the final clue of the Times crossword before bed. He believes puzzles make us better people – and that they might even help us save the world by teaching us to use fresh perspectives and cooperation to solve everything from climate change to political polarization.
The New York-based journalist and best-selling author of The Year of Living Biblically and Drop Dead Healthy inherited his love of puzzles from his parents who, when separated by long distances, stayed connected by mailing a crossword back and forth, filling in a clue or two each time. As a kid, Jacobs’ bookshelves were filled with volumes of brainteasers, and he spent his spare time deciphering secret codes, completing mazes and reading riddles. He even married a fellow puzzler – his wife works for a company that creates corporate scavenger hunts.
This is the foundation for The Puzzler, where each chapter explores a different type of puzzle. But it is much more than a book about puzzles. There is rich historical detail (one of the founders of the Where’s Waldo?-like hide-and-seek puzzle was a 16th-century Flemish painter). There are conversations with wonderfully eccentric characters, including the inventor of Kryptos, one of the most famous unsolved puzzles in the world. There is self-deprecating humour, like when he writes about the frustration his favourite hobby can evoke: “I’m not proud to admit this, but I sometimes give my computer the middle finger (I despise you, unnamed Eastern European river!)”
This is coupled with moments of self-reflection, when Jacobs explores the range of emotions he experiences when working on a crossword, from frustration and anger to catharsis, pride, humility and “awe at the sheer variety of microscopic and giant, ancient and new, sublime and ridiculous stuff that makes up our world.”
The book, of course, includes puzzles of every kind at the end of each chapter, from the first crossword puzzle published in The New York World newspaper in 1913, to mazes, rebuses, riddles, sudokus, anagrams, chess problems, ciphers and secret codes. (The answers are at the back of the book.)
“I see everything as a puzzle,” Jacobs says in a phone interview one breezy spring afternoon. “You could frame each of my books as a puzzle: I tried to tackle the puzzle of religion, which is The Year of Living Biblically; I wanted to tackle the puzzle of ‘how to be grateful in a world where it’s often hard to be grateful’ and that was Thanks a Thousand. This time, instead of looking at big puzzles, I focused on literal puzzles to see what they could teach me.”
As he is wont to do when writing a book, Jacobs fully immersed himself in his subject matter. In The Year of Living Biblically, he attempted to follow all of the rules in the Bible, which included growing a beard of biblical proportions (his wife refused to kiss him for seven months). In Thanks a Thousand, he journeyed around the world to thank every single person involved in the production of his morning coffee.
In The Puzzler, Jacobs’ research took him to CIA headquarters in Virginia to attempt (unsuccessfully) to decipher Kryptos; to Japan, where he discovered the elegance of puzzle boxes; to rural Vermont to venture into the 24-acre Great Vermont Corn Maze (he finally emerged four hours later); and to Spain, his wife and two of their three teenage sons in tow, to compete in the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship (they came in second last).
He spent three years writing the book, because “I could always delude myself into saying, ‘Well, I’ll just do one more puzzle tonight as part of my research,’” he says. “I could pretend that I was working, but really I was delaying actually writing sentences.”
Jacobs approaches his writing as just another puzzle, which he defines as anything that requires creativity and innovative thinking. “I love the Japanese puzzle maker who sums up puzzles as anything that begins with a question mark, proceeds to a forward arrow and then to an exclamation point [? → !]. You’re befuddled, you wrestle with it – and then you have a revelation.”
He thinks anyone can anyone be good at puzzles, and there is a puzzle for every person. “You just have to find the genre that appeals to you,” Jacobs says. “It’s like dating.” Even those who insist they don’t do puzzles do them all the time, whether it’s putting together a dinner party or figuring out how to get a raise at work.
The most important thing, he says, is to have a puzzler mindset of ceaseless curiosity. “It’s about seeing problems as puzzles instead of crises. I’m very concerned about the climate, yet when I hear about the ‘climate crisis’ it just makes me want to curl up in the fetal position. But, if I hear the phrase ‘the climate puzzle,’ I’m much more motivated to try to solve it.”
While Jacobs spoke to experts who acknowledged there is some evidence doing puzzles can help delay dementia, he says the cognitive benefits are the same as when you try to learn a new language or pick up a new instrument. “I’m much more excited about the fact that puzzles can change your worldview and train you to think in interesting ways,” he says. “There are tons of ways that puzzles have taught me to approach problems differently – like ‘turn it upside down’ or ‘break it into little chunks’ – and these are lessons I apply in my life.”
He also sees puzzles as a unifying force. In The Puzzler, Jacobs writes about a behavioural economist who studied how to bring liberals and conservatives together, and one of the few activities that succeeded was solving a crossword. “When the Wordle craze started, it was fun to watch how both sides of the political spectrum seemed to delight in putting their little yellow and green boxes on Twitter,” Jacobs says. “It was a nice respite from the usual vitriol in my feed and shows what can happen when you’re all working toward the same goal.”
Jacobs is currently working on two puzzles. The first is an “infinite puzzle” designed just for him by a Dutch creator – it will take 1.2 decillion moves (1 followed by 33 zeroes) to solve. Like all great puzzles, he writes, “it contains lessons about ingenuity, fresh perspectives, and optimism.” And, he contends, in this case it’s about the journey, not about closure. The second puzzle, he tells me, is what to immerse himself in for his next book.