Puzzles are big news—and big business—these days. With their capacity to entertain, challenge and provide a distraction from the stresses of daily life, puzzles have found a wider audience than ever before.
In the introduction to his new book, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, From Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life, journalist, bestselling author and invenerate puzzler A.J. Jacobs (The Know-It-All) shares the euphoria he felt upon learning that his name was featured as a clue in a New York Times crossword puzzle. He’d made it to the big time! But, alas, it was a Saturday puzzle, one of the hardest of the week. So, not a household name just yet, just an obscure clue.
However, Jacobs may find his name appearing in clues more often as puzzle lovers old and new discover this timely and entertaining exploration of why we love (and, yes, often become addicted to) all sorts of puzzles—from the word puzzle books we gobbled up in childhood, to jigsaw puzzles on card tables during family summer vacations, to the world’s recent embrace of a simple daily word game. (You know the one.)
Jacobs covers a wide variety of puzzles, including anagrams, mazes, math and logic puzzles, Rubik’s Cubes, Sudoku, riddles, ciphers and, of course, crosswords—his first love. He admits to knowing the exact time the New York Times crossword puzzle appears online each day. He’s also honest about the emotions involved in puzzle-solving. Frankly, it’s not all enjoyment; there’s frustration, drama, despair and even humiliation. “And sometimes there’s terror,” Jacobs writes, speaking of the creeping fear that getting stuck portends mental decline.
The Puzzler isn’t simply Jacobs’ personal journey, however; it’s also an exploration of the history of puzzles and their role in society. Along the way, Jacobs meets and interviews some fascinating puzzle lovers, including Jeff Varasano, who created his own algorithms to solve a Rubik’s Cube as a teenager back in 1980, and a young woman named Sydney Weaver, a “speedcuber” whose cubing has helped her with pediatric arthritis. Readers also meet crossword maker Peter Gordon, who, when asked why he thinks we’re addicted to puzzles, replied, “Well, life is a puzzle.” Indeed, as the late Maki Kaji, often known as the father of Sudoku, believed, puzzles are a journey. Jacobs’ wonderful book reminds us that puzzles help us to be present in the moment and connect with others on the same journey.
A final note: The Puzzler would make a fabulous gift as a physical copy simply because it includes original puzzles by Greg Pliska for readers to solve. But don’t despair; the answers are in the back.