Famed ‘immersive journalist’ AJ Jacobs’ latest book is perfect for unnerving times

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

Jacobs, an “immersive journalist,” often enlists his wife and children to help him with his outlandish career projects. This time he even made them wear special shirts. The resourceful Jacobs had his Team USA jerseys 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 history’s most puzzling puzzles, from crossword puzzles to brain teasers to the meaning of life.”

And though the family reluctantly donned their shirts, once the action began, Julie and the kids took the competition seriously.

“I love that Julie, once a skeptic, has fully committed. She is badmouthing the puzzle. She has also vowed not to take a bathroom break for the entire eight hours. This is the first time in the 20 years we have been together,” Jacobs writes.

Given the incredibly tough competition and the relatively poor preparation of the Jacobs family, the author was pleased with the outcome.

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

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

AJ Jacobs with his wife and children at the 2019 World Puzzle Championship in Spain. (Courtesy)

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

In a 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.

“Digging deeper into the world of puzzles came naturally to 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 his introduction, “I’ve been crazy about puzzles all my life.”

The author inherited from his parents a particular fondness for crossword puzzles, which they solved together through the mail.

“When my dad was in the army in Korea and my mom was in the US, they kept in touch by sending puzzles back and forth, each completing a clue or two in turn. Not the most efficient method but certainly romantic,” writes Jacobs.

Author AJ Jacobs tours Vermont’s Great Corn Maze in 2020. (Courtesy)

Jacobs has long practiced what is known as immersive or experimental journalism. for example, for “The know-it-all”, he spent 18 months reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. For “The Year of Living Biblically” the secular Jacobs tried to follow all the rules and commandments of the Torah. For “Drop Healthy Dead” worked to get her “squishy” body into shape and into good health with the help of a team of expert medical advisors, researchers, nutritionists and trainers.

Consequently, 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 become the world’s expert on all kinds of puzzles, but he has mastered better than most Rubik’s cubes, sudokus, brain teasers, labyrinths, chess problems, cryptics, anagrams, rebuses, Japanese puzzle boxes, and more. plus.

Jacobs said that 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 wasn’t just on puzzle, but that was also a book of puzzle,” he said.

The Springbok puzzle company published this Jackson Pollock puzzle in 1965, proclaiming it the most difficult puzzle in the world. (Courtesy of Strong, Rochester, New York)

To do this, it includes many historical examples of puzzles, as well as a whole section of original puzzles created by puzzle master. greg pliskafounder of Exaltation of Larks, a company that creates puzzle quests for corporate and private clients.

“At first I thought of creating the puzzles myself, but realized I needed a professional to do it. In writing this book, I learned that creating puzzles is a true art,” said Jacobs.

To make things even more challenging, Jacobs and Pliska embedded a secret access code 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 quest has been claimed. However, the puzzles remain available on the website for those who want to try them out.

“Four hundred people made it to the final of the contest. Incredibly, [winner] Benji Nguyen and a group of his friends completed the final level in just an hour,” Jacobs marveled.

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

Readers of “The Puzzler” will enjoy Jacobs’ characteristically humorous and self-deprecating account of his investigation and reports, but they’ll also get a real brain workout, especially if they attempt to solve all the puzzles in the book.

You may want to pace yourself by reading one or two chapters at a time. Those who want to skip solving can skim through Jacobs’s engaging prose and still get a sense of how each type of puzzle came to be and how it works, and, of course, learn plenty of wacky facts.

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

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

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

Jacobs is always meeting interesting people and communities while writing his books. She said that she enjoyed meeting puzzlers from around 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 try to figure out the Kryptos from photos and drawings, Jacobs got permission to see it in person. Learning that the author was headed to Langley, Virginia, Kryptos enthusiasts flooded him online with hints, hints, clues, and requests.

Although Jacobs was well received in the puzzle community, he found that its members can be sticklers for accuracy.

‘The Puzzler’ by AJ Jacobs (Crown)

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

It turns out that the puzzle included two big don’ts: it was asymmetrical and it had two-letter words. Fortunately, there was time to correct the image before publication and avoid further fuss.

Jacobs said that of all his books, this one took him the longest to write. He attributed it 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 meet a deadline. On the one hand, three teenagers locked up at home did not create a calm work environment. On the other hand, Jacobs had a captive group to help him try a variety of puzzles.

At the end of his quest, and after 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 exactly what they sound like: puzzles that are so hard they take generations to solve. The tower-shaped puzzle appropriately named “Jacobs’ Ladder” ordered by the author requires twisting a series of pegs to remove a metal bar. It will take 1.2 trillion moves to solve it. Jacobs can only hope that his great-great-grandchildren love puzzles as much as he does.

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

AJ Jacobs and his son with the generational puzzle called ‘Jacobs’ Ladder’ custom designed by Oskar van Deventer. The puzzle will require 1.2 trillion moves to solve. (Julie Jacobs)

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

He suggested that this approach can be applied to address climate change, culture warfare, AI security, and pandemic preparedness, for example.

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

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

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