One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, From Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life

From a New York Times review by Judith Newman of the book by A.J. Jacobs titled “The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, From Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life”:

Two months before I graduated from college, I stopped going to class and started doing crossword puzzles. I wasn’t very good. But one thing I knew: I was better at doing crossword puzzles than I was at doing life. I had no particular goals, no idea how to find a job or a place to live or someone who would love me.

But if I just stayed in bed, with a bowl of cereal and my glorious squares and words, fulfillment was within reach. At least I could resolve something. Puzzles kept me from enlisting in the Army out of sheer panic. I always wished I’d had a chance to personally thank the New York Times crossword editor back then, Eugene T. Maleska, for saving me during the year I watched “Private Benjamin” once too often.

But at least I can thank A.J. Jacobs for putting into words and thought and deed what I never quite managed to do. I hope I’m not making his weirdly fascinating new book, “The Puzzler,” sound solemn; it’s quite the opposite — a romp, both fun and funny. Jacobs explains, in a way I never could, how at various points in our lives puzzles can save us. Far from a waste of time, they soothe, focus, excite; they can, Jacobs argues, “make us better thinkers, more creative, more incisive, more persistent,” while giving us “that dopamine rush of discovery.”

“It’s been my experience,” he adds, “that puzzles can shift our worldview. They can nudge us to adopt the puzzle mind-set — a mind-set of ceaseless curiosity about everything in the world, from politics to science to human relationships — and a desire to find solutions.” While Jacobs used Covidtime to write a book about puzzles, the rest of us, it seems, helped cope with the stress and isolation of lockdowns and closings by doing puzzles. At the beginning of the pandemic, jigsaws were especially infectious, with sales exploding exponentially.

There are lots of different kinds of puzzles. Lots. Crosswords, anagrams, rebuses, jigsaws, mazes, chess problems, math and logic, ciphers/secret codes, visuals (think “Where’s Waldo”), cryptics: The list goes on and on, and Jacobs delves into each one with relish. His previous books (like “The Year of Living Biblically” and “The Know-It-All”) involve what he calls “lifestyle experiments” — and “The Puzzler” is no exception. A puzzle fanatic himself, Jacobs gonzos his way into everything from C.I.A. headquarters (to investigate Kryptos, the copper sculpture embedded with a secret message that continues to defy cryptanalysts) to the World National Jigsaw championships. He flew to Spain to compete and apparently, since no one else from the United States signed up, he and his wife and three kids represented the United States. They finished second to last, which Jacobs quite rightly saw as a win. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Along the way we meet all manner of puzzle masters, as well as the merely possessed. There are the speedcubers, people who memorize hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of algorithms to reduce the number of turns per solve. (If you think that nothing is more boring to watch than golf, just know that speedcubing tournaments have spectators, as well as fantasy leagues where you can gamble on your favorite champions.) There is Adrian Fisher, who modestly calls himself the most prolific maze designer “in the history of humankind”: His work includes a Beatles-themed maze in Liverpool, a maze in the passenger terminal of Singapore’s Changi Airport and one on the side of a building in Dubai, “which shouldn’t be attempted unless you’re Spider-Man.” And of course there is Will Shortz himself, the NPR/New York Times editor who is to puzzles what Kim Kardashian is to buttocks: There is none finer, or more discussed among aficionados. On the walls of Shortz’s living room hangs a personal letter to him from Bill Clinton: “Even when I can’t finish them, they’re the only part of The New York Times that guarantees a good feeling.”

Jacobs’s love for puzzles is infectious, and it’s not hard to understand why. Puzzle people draw us in with their monomania. “I’m a sucker for people who are passionate about something,” Jacobs notes, “regardless of how silly that passion might seem to others.” He shows us how you can even cherish puzzles that you don’t have the patience (or skill) to solve.

The truth is, we’re all puzzlers, whether we’re trying to remember our passwords or losing sleep because we’re staying up till 12:01 a.m. to do Wordle — a simple word puzzle that ballooned from 90 daily players on Nov. 1 to 300,000 at the beginning of the year to millions now. All puzzles aren’t so innocent — think Zodiac Killer, who still has multiple websites dedicated to cracking some of his unsolved notes. But puzzles also bring us together in ways large and small. If I’m having an existential crisis at 3 a.m., there is an entire globe of people out there playing online Scrabble in real time. And I’ve actually had interesting conversations on Words With Friends with strangers. As puzzlers often say, “It’s not the puzzles you solve, it’s the people you meet.”

What saved my younger self from a foolish, desperate choice is what Jacobs calls the true puzzle lover’s ethos: “We should look at a problem and figure out potential solutions instead of just wallowing in rage and doubling down on our biases.” With the dreadful puzzle we’re finding our world in today, this just might be the answer.

Judith Newman is the author of “To Siri With Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son and the Kindness of Machines.”

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