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Interview

Famed ‘immersion journalist’ A.J. Jacobs’ latest book is perfect for puzzling times

American author, convinced that puzzle-solving made him a better person, shows readers how tackling crosswords, secret ciphers, mazes and more can change our lives and the world

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • A.J. Jacobs and his son with the generation puzzle called 'Jacobs' Ladder' custom designed by Oskar van Deventer. The puzzle will take 1.2 decillion moves to solve. (Julie Jacobs)
    A.J. Jacobs and his son with the generation puzzle called 'Jacobs' Ladder' custom designed by Oskar van Deventer. The puzzle will take 1.2 decillion moves to solve. (Julie Jacobs)
  • Collection of Rubik's Cube-inspired twisty puzzles from collection of Brett Kuehner. (Brett Kuehner)
    Collection of Rubik's Cube-inspired twisty puzzles from collection of Brett Kuehner. (Brett Kuehner)
  • A.J. Jacobs (Lem Lattimer)
    A.J. Jacobs (Lem Lattimer)
  • Detail from 19th century jigsaw puzzle of British royalty. (Courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University)
    Detail from 19th century jigsaw puzzle of British royalty. (Courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University)
  • A.J. Jacobs with wife and sons at the 2019 World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship in Spain. (Courtesy)
    A.J. Jacobs with wife and sons at the 2019 World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship in Spain. (Courtesy)
  • The 'Kryptos' sculpture by artist Jim Sanborn was installed at CIA headquarters in 1990. The artwork's letters contain a secret code, which has get to be fully deciphered despite intense efforts by people around the world. (Courtesy of Jim Sanborn and the CIA)
    The 'Kryptos' sculpture by artist Jim Sanborn was installed at CIA headquarters in 1990. The artwork's letters contain a secret code, which has get to be fully deciphered despite intense efforts by people around the world. (Courtesy of Jim Sanborn and the CIA)
  • A.J. Jacobs and son working on a jigsaw puzzle at the 2019 World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship in Spain. (Courtesy)
    A.J. Jacobs and son working on a jigsaw puzzle at the 2019 World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship in Spain. (Courtesy)
  • The Great Vermont Corn Maze was designed in 2020 as a tribute to the medical workers working hard to save people's lives during the Covid pandemic. (Courtesy of Mike Boudreau)
    The Great Vermont Corn Maze was designed in 2020 as a tribute to the medical workers working hard to save people's lives during the Covid pandemic. (Courtesy of Mike Boudreau)

In 2019, bestselling author A.J. Jacobs traveled to Spain with his wife Julie and two of their children to compete in the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship.

Jacobs, an “immersion journalist,” often wrangles his wife and sons into helping him with his wacky professional projects. This time he even made them wear special T-shirts. The witty Jacobs had their Team USA shirts printed with the motto “E pluribus unum pictura” (Out of many, one picture).

It was part of the writer’s research for 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.”

And while the family may have put their shirts on reluctantly, once the action started Julie and the boys took the competition very seriously.

“I love that Julie, once skeptical, has fully committed. She’s trash-talking the puzzle. She has also sworn not to take a bathroom break for the entire eight hours. This is a first in the 20 years we’ve been together,” Jacobs writes.

Given the incredibly stiff competition and the Jacobs family’s relatively meager preparation, the author was pleased with the outcome.

“My prayers have been answered. We did not finish last,” he writes.

Team USA came in second to last. Along the way, they picked up some great tips for doing better next time, such as sorting puzzle pieces by shape instead of color and bringing a sharp tool to avoid the rookie mistake of wasting precious time opening plastic-wrapped puzzle boxes with a fingernail.

A.J. Jacobs with wife and sons at the 2019 World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship in Spain. (Courtesy)

This is the kind of fun laced throughout “The Puzzler,” in which, however, the author takes puzzles and the benefit of solving them very seriously.

In conversation with The Times of Israel, Jacobs argues that approaching life’s challenges as puzzles to be solved — rather than problems to be eradicated — makes us better thinkers, and even better people.

“Delving into the world of puzzles was a natural for me,” Jacobs said in a recent interview from his home in New York.

The book turned out to be a real passion project because, as Jacobs writes in its introduction, “I’ve been crazy for puzzles all my life.”

The author inherited a particular love of crosswords from his parents, who would solve them jointly through the mail.

“When my dad was in the army in Korea and my mom was stateside, they’d keep in touch by sending a puzzle back and forth, each filling out a clue or two per turn. Not the most efficient method but certainly romantic,” Jacobs writes.

Author A.J. Jacobs makes his way through the Great Vermont Corn Maze in 2020. (Courtesy)

Jacobs is a long-time practitioner of what is known as immersion or experimental journalism. For example, for “The Know-It-All,” he spent 18 months reading through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. For “The Year of Living Biblically” the secular Jacobs tried to follow every rule and commandment in the Torah. For “Drop Dead Healthy” he worked to whip his “mushy” body into shape and good health with the help of a team of expert medical advisers, researchers, nutritionists and trainers.

Accordingly, for “The Puzzler” Jacobs spent the last two and a half years researching 17 different types of puzzles, and solving countless examples. He may not have come away the world’s expert on every type of puzzle, but he has a better grasp than most of Rubik’s Cubes, sudokus, riddles, mazes, chess problems, cryptics, anagrams, rebuses, Japanese puzzle boxes, and more.

Jacobs said he wanted “The Puzzler,” like his other books, to combine elements of memoir, adventure, interesting characters, history, science and self-help. But this book would have something extra.

“With this one, I wanted to write a book that was not only about puzzles, but that was also a book of puzzles,” he said.

Springbok puzzle company published this Jackson Pollock jigsaw in 1965, proclaiming it the world’s most difficult puzzle. (Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY)

To that end, he includes many historical examples of puzzles, as well as a whole section of original puzzles created by puzzle maestro Greg Pliska, founder of Exaltation of Larks, a company that creates puzzle hunts for corporate and private clients.

“I initially thought about creating the puzzles myself, but I realized I needed a professional to do it. I learned by writing this book that creating puzzles is a real art,” Jacobs said.

To make things even more challenging, Jacobs and Pliska embedded a secret passcode in the book’s introduction that provides access to a contest made up of a series of puzzles on the book’s website (thepuzzlerbook.com).

The $10,000 prize for being the first to solve the puzzle hunt has been claimed. However, the puzzles remain available on the website for those who want to try their hand at them.

“Four hundred people got to the finals of the contest. Unbelievably, [winner] Benji Nguyen and a group of his friends completed the final level in only an hour,” Jacobs marveled.

Twisty puzzle designer Grégoire Pfennig with his record-breaking 33x33x33 cube. (Daniele Roversi)

“The Puzzler” readers will enjoy Jacobs’ signature self-deprecating humorous recounting of his research and reporting, but they will also get a real brain workout, especially if they attempt to solve all the puzzles in the book.

You might want to pace yourself, reading one or two chapters at a time. Those who want to skip the solving can breeze through Jacobs’ engaging prose and still get a sense of how each kind of puzzle came to be and how it works — and, of course, learn a lot of quirky facts.

Who wouldn’t want to know that there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 (let’s round it to 43 quintillion) possible arrangements of the colored squares making up a Rubik’s Cube? Or that a Chinese teenager named Yusheng Du can solve the twisty puzzle in a record-holding 3.47 seconds? Or that the largest twisty cube is 33x33x33, making it much harder to solve using your feet, as has been done with some of the smaller cubes.

“My personal best is two minutes and fifty-eight seconds. Not great. Sort of like bench-pressing twenty-five pounds,” Jacobs writes.

The ‘Kryptos’ sculpture by artist Jim Sanborn was installed at CIA headquarters in 1990. The artwork’s letters contain a secret code, which has yet to be fully deciphered despite intense efforts by people around the world. (Courtesy of Jim Sanborn and the CIA)

Jacobs always meets interesting individuals and communities while writing his books. He said he enjoyed getting to know puzzlers all over the world, including those who have worked steadily since 1990 to crack the code embedded in the “Kryptos” sculpture by artist Jim Sanborn installed at CIA headquarters.

Unlike most people who have to try to decode Kryptos from photos and drawings, Jacobs got permission to see it in person. Upon hearing that the author was on his way to Langley, Virginia, Kryptos enthusiasts inundated him online with hints, suggestions, clues and requests.

Although Jacobs was warmly welcomed into the puzzler community, he discovered that its members can be sticklers for exactitude.

‘The Puzzler’ by A.J. Jacobs. (Crown)

“For instance, when I posted the intended image [of a crossword] for the book’s cover on my Twitter feed, I got tons of comments saying, ‘That is not a puzzle!'” the author recounted.

It turns out that the crossword included two big no-no’s: It was asymmetrical, and it had two-letter words. Fortunately, there was time to correct the image before publication and avoid further uproar.

Jacobs said that of all his books, this one took him the longest to write. He chalked that up to the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented or delayed some of his research trips. He also had a lot of unexpected family time, which turned out to be both good and bad for a writer trying to make a deadline. On one hand, three teenage boys cooped up at home did not make for a quiet working environment. On the other, Jacobs had a captive group to help him try out a variety of puzzles.

At the end of his quest, and after the lockdown restrictions were lifted, Jacobs ordered a custom generational puzzle from Dutch puzzle creator Oskar van Deventer to keep the momentum going… for an unimaginably long time.

Generational puzzles are just what they sound like — puzzles that are so difficult that they take generations to solve. The appropriately named “Jacobs’ Ladder” tower-like puzzle ordered by the author requires the twisting of a series of pegs to remove a metal rod. It will take 1.2 decillion moves to solve. Jacobs can only hope that his great-great-grandchildren will love puzzles as much as he does.

As challenging as puzzles can be, Jacobs claims that the certainty of their solutions can provide us comfort. The sense of flow that connects the solver with the puzzle can lead to a transcendent spiritual experience. Who wouldn’t want to feel that dopamine hit?

A.J. Jacobs and his son with the generation puzzle called ‘Jacobs’ Ladder,’ custom designed by Oskar van Deventer. The puzzle will take 1.2 decillion moves to solve. (Julie Jacobs)

While each type of puzzle is unique, there is much we can learn from puzzles as a whole. Jacobs is adamant that the skills we use to solve puzzles, with their platonic ideal of a single solution, can help us navigate our messy world.

He suggested that this approach can be applied to tackling climate change, the culture war, AI safety, and pandemic preparedness, for example.

“In real life, there may be multiple possible solutions from which to ultimately choose, but puzzle-solving skills such as breaking things down into smaller chunks, or looking at things from all sides and reverse angles, can help us arrive at good options,” Jacobs said.

“It’s about that very Jewish trait of asking lots of questions,” he said.

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