Like a lot of us, A.J. Jacobs spent a chunk of the past two years doing puzzles, but at least he got a book out of it.
“The Puzzler,” which he began before the pandemic, is the result. Like the self-described human guinea pig’s other books — “The Know-It-All,” about reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the self-explanatory “The Year of Living Biblically” — it charts an experiment. But this experiment is easier to relate to and less rigid since — instead of following a predetermined course — the book loosely chronicles him taking a stab at more than a dozen kinds of brain-teasers.
You could easily read “The Puzzler” as a guidebook. Follow along as Jacobs and his family travel to Spain, pre-pandemic, to participate in an international jigsaw puzzle-off. Sympathize (or not) as he discovers his own name in the New York Times crossword, only to realize it’s on a low-interest day. Learn about familiar diversions such as rebuses as well as lesser-known ones like Japanese puzzle boxes, fiendish wooden containers that lack instructions on how to open them.
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Thrill — if, like me, you love musical theater — to a surprising number of references to the late Stephen Sondheim, a puzzle nut.
Although Jacobs has been accused of smugness in previous books, he’s a self-deprecating guide to these puzzles (most of the 18 chapters come with several for us to solve, along with offering tips). He steps back to ponder why we love puzzles even though he still stews over one from his youth, and a more recent example convinced him that one of his books has the wrong title.
Those stories build to the kind of conclusion that wasn’t as clear in books where, for instance, he threw away polyester clothing because the Bible says not to wear mixed fabrics or insulted strangers because he’d taken a vow of truthfulness. In a way, “The Puzzler” is a self-help book that assures us there’s good reason to spend an hour in the bathtub with a pencil and a Sudoku or months fiddling with the world’s largest Rubik’s Cube (a task he farms out to a college student).
Writes Jacobs of a logic problem: “It’s a crash course in perspective-taking, in seeing the world from someone else’s point of view. Which to me is an absolutely crucial skill, especially in these times of heightened tribalism.”
When a professor discovers the best way to get groups of conservatives and liberals to cooperate is collaborating on puzzles, that feels hopeful. Brain-teasers remind us the world is more complicated than we know, they’re a good way to exercise our minds and they might hold answers to the world’s biggest problems.
Sure, they also can make us howl in frustration. But over the course of the book, Jacobs realizes that even vexing puzzles offer comfort. We may not know how to solve them, he writes, but at least we know those problems can be solved.