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The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life

Review

The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life

written by A.J. Jacobs, with original puzzles by Greg Pliska

If someone ever does a biography of A.J. Jacobs, they will no doubt name it “One Man’s Quest.”

Jacobs (not to be confused, as I frequently do, with J.J. Abrams) has made a cottage industry of finding a topic --- The Bible, health, the encyclopedia, family reunions --- and researching the heck out of it. Not just cold facts and dates, but interviews with other like-minded information lovers (dare I say nerds?) at the heart of his subject du livre.

His latest venture --- THE PUZZLER: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life --- follows the pattern: a deep dive into a world that can be both gratifying and infuriating.

"...[a] fascinating overview of these international pastimes. I can’t wait to see what A.J. Jacobs has lined up for his next literary quest."

Not all genres of puzzles are created equal. Some require math (that lets me out). Some are pretty linear, while others will be engaging for outside-the-box thinkers. Jacobs includes them all: the crosswords and jigsaws of the title, but also ones that require pencils (and lots of erasers); physical manipulations (like Japanese puzzle boxes and Rubik's Cubes); or just mind power (riddles).

Jacobs delves into a brief history of some 20 varieties, which can date back thousands of years. While they are often thought of as amusements, failure to solve --- such as the riddle of the Sphinx --- might have dire consequences.

In none of his books has the author been content to just offer historical accounts or interviews. Sure, that’s a good part of his M.O., but he is from the school of immersive journalism and gets his hands dirty --- figuratively and at times literally. In a few instances, he enlisted his family as guinea pigs and is frank about their feelings of being treated as test subjects (usually with good humor; the family that plays together stays together?).

There are scores of examples of each for the reader to try out. This is where a potential drawback might crop up: not every type of puzzle is everyone’s cup of tea. Personally, while I love crosswords, chess problems, anagrams and sudoku, I find math and logic games to be my undoing, as they have been since middle school. This can lead to a bit of impatience and frustration.

But as Jacobs points out, these can be turned into learning experiences. In his chapter on cryptics, he writes about the anger and frustration that can ensue when results are difficult to come by: “We should look at a problem and figure out potential solutions instead of just wallowing in rage and doubling down on our biases.” In fact, he can get downright philosophical at times. We all look for meaning in life, but that often can be hard to achieve.

The layout of the book also could be distracting as readers might flip to the back of the book to check their answers, interrupting the flow of the narrative. Maybe that’s a conscious choice, an encouragement to break things up, to not be so pedantic.

One other aspect that might detract from the overall pleasant experience are the illustrations. In more than a few cases, I found them too small and/or lacking in definition, making the point that Jacobs is trying to share difficult to see.

THE PUZZLER would have been fun regardless of its release date, but I wonder if it might have been even more welcome --- and a much-needed distraction --- had it come out a year ago, when we were still hip-deep in the pandemic. 

These are minor flaws in an otherwise fascinating overview of these international pastimes. I can’t wait to see what A.J. Jacobs has lined up for his next literary quest.

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on April 29, 2022

The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life
written by A.J. Jacobs, with original puzzles by Greg Pliska

  • Publication Date: April 26, 2022
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Crown
  • ISBN-10: 0593136713
  • ISBN-13: 9780593136713