The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs [Book Review]

If you enjoy The Puzzler, we hope you’ll check out our interview with author A.J. Jacobs on The Reality Escape Pod.

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Author:  A.J. Jacobs

Year:  2022

Page count:  240 pages of written material; about 80 pages of puzzles and solutions

Price:  $28.00

Publisher:  Crown

REA Reaction

It’s easy to understand why author A.J. Jacobs has been on the New York Times bestseller list 4 times. His writing throughout The Puzzler is engaging and very easy to binge. I needed to make myself put the book down multiple times in order to reflect on what he had written rather than just turning to the next chapter.

Packed full of humor, anecdotes, and insight, The Puzzler was a delight to read. Jacobs does a wonderful job of making this book feel personal. He shares his triumphs and secret (well, not so secret anymore) puzzle shames, we meet his family, and we follow him around the world. We also meet some of his political leanings through some offhand commentary, which I didn’t feel was necessary in a book about puzzling.

He immersed himself in puzzles for years to write this book and provides meaningful conversation on a broad spectrum of puzzles. With nearly 20 puzzle types covered, readers will read about one they really love but likely also one that they don’t care for. My litmus test was chess puzzles; I’ve just never been interested in them. And while I still don’t feel compelled to delve into them the way Jacobs did (sitting down with Garry Kasparov himself), I still enjoyed the chapter and left with a greater appreciation of the style.

Who is this for?

This is an approachable book meant for anyone and everyone. You don’t have to be deep into the puzzle world to appreciate Jacobs’ humor or his exploration of puzzle types and the people that create them – but you should be at least a little interested in what puzzles can offer.

Structure

There are two major sections to The Puzzler: 18 chapters of the book itself and a section of puzzles.

Each of the book’s 18 chapters delves in a puzzle type ranging from the familiar (crosswords, anagrams) to the more esoteric (puzzle boxes, cryptics). Readers are given an introduction to the type and typically a very brief history of when and where the puzzle originated. Many of the chapters end with a bit of a lesson, a takeaway that connects the puzzles to the real world – ideas such as accepting uncertainty and breaking big problems down into smaller, more manageable pieces.

The meat of each chapter is Jacobs’ in-the-field journalism style. We are taken to a giant corn maze in Vermont, CIA headquarters, and a jigsaw competition in Spain. He interviews dozens of people who are heavily entrenched in their corner of the puzzle world. A few of these interviewees will even be familiar to regular readers of this very site!

After each chapter is a section with a sampling of historical versions of the puzzle type for the reader to solve. There is a pencil maze by Lewis Carroll, the first KenKen, and riddles from around the world. Answers are, thankfully, provided in an appendix.

Finally, Jacobs tapped puzzlemaker Greg Pliska to create a series of puzzles exclusively for The Puzzler. Each chapter of the book has a new puzzle associated with it. This is the time for readers to test out what they’ve learned about solving. There is, of course, a meta puzzle to tie the puzzles together.

Analysis

➕ Puzzles are arranged from the (generally) more accessible to the more esoteric, providing an on-ramp to readers not familiar with the depths of puzzle types.

➖ There is no chapter dedicated to escape rooms but one would feel at home here.

➕ The book includes an expansive resource/ reading list.

➖ The Puzzler is about solving rather than creating, but some basic resources for getting started creating would be helpful.

➕ There are a ton of interesting people interviewed for this book.

➕/➖ The hints for the original puzzles would benefit from a more progressive system. Some are in the book with more to be published on the website, but looking in two different places doesn’t feel cohesive. However, there will be an answer checker on the website so you can avoid accidental spoilers from looking in the back of the book for answers.

The Puzzler rides the middle ground of digging deep into each topic. It’s more accessible for new people, but enthusiasts might be hungry for more.

💰 When is a book not a book? When it’s a contest! Read the introduction (available online for free) for details.

Buy your copy of A.J. Jacob’s The Puzzler, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Jacobs provided a pre-release copy for review.

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2 thoughts on “The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs [Book Review]

  1. I’ve found Jacobs’ other books very entertaining (particularly the one about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and the other book about living a strictly literal Old Testament lifestyle for a year). Looking forward to checking this one out! Great find!

    1. Let us know what you think when you read it! This is the first of his books I’ve read, and I’m looking forward to picking up another one.

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