Best-selling author A.J. Jacobs' new book tells us why puzzles 'make us better people'
A master of immersion journalism, A.J. Jacobs throws himself into lifestyle experiments to improve his own life and then writes about them to help improve the lives of others. Many of his books have found a worthy home on the New York Times best sellers list, some including The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection.
Now Jacobs has channeled his lifelong love of puzzles into a new book, The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life. In it, he delves into the history and significance of puzzles, sits down with some of the world's greatest puzzle experts and even competes in the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championships in Spain. EW sat down with the author, journalist and EW alum to discuss his new work, why movies and TV shows love anagrams and Taylor Swift's fascinating use of Easter eggs.
Read on for our conversation—as well as the Men in Black Swan movie puzzle game, which Jacobs created exclusively for EW.
EW: You've had a lifelong love of solving puzzles. What compelled you to start researching these puzzles for the book?
A.J. Jacobs: Well, like you said, I am a lifelong puzzler. I figured what if I could spend a couple of years doing puzzles and meeting the most wonderfully eccentric puzzle makers and puzzle solvers and call it research for a book? That's not a bad deal. So I did, and I also wanted to see if there was anything to my long held hunch that puzzles are actually a force for good in the world, that they make us better people. They're not a waste of time, they're not a trivial pursuit. The little puzzles help us solve lifes big puzzles. And so I wanted to investigate that and I was happy to see that yes, it is true, puzzles are good for you. It's a scientific fact.
You said in your book that "if we see the world as a series of puzzles, instead of a series of battles, we will come up with better solutions and we need solutions now more than ever."
If we approach the world with what I call the puzzler mindset, we will all be a little better off because the puzzler mindset is all about curiosity, about everything — about politics, other people experiences, literature, life. One of the many lessons I learned from years of doing puzzles is that it is much easier to solve a puzzle or a problem when your mind is flexible and when you're in a kind of playful mood. The key is asking questions instead of having a predetermined opinion.
Tell me about the moment you saw that your name was a clue in the New York Times crossword.
That is the opening anecdote of the book because as a lifelong puzzle nerd, this was a dream come true: I was the answer to a clue in The New York Times crossword puzzle. It was the clue is author AJ blank. And I thought, all right, this is the highlight of my life, my wedding and the birth of my kids were pretty good, but this my, wow, holy grail. And then my brother-in-law pointed out correctly that I appeared in the Saturday New York Times puzzle. And if you know anything about the Times puzzles, Saturday is the hardest, harder than Sunday. And all the answers, no one knows them. So his point was, this is not a compliment. This is actually proof that I'm completely obscure. The happy ending to the story is that I talked about this emotional rollercoaster on a podcast and it happened that one of The New York Times crossword makers was listening and saved me and put me in a Tuesday puzzle where I totally don't belong. Cause that's where you see Lady Gaga — that's a Tuesday clue, not AJ Jacobs.
In The Year of Living Biblically, you discuss in detail the year that you lived according to all the rules and teachings of the Bible. What was the most enlightening or surprising thing that you learned on your journey completing that experiment?
I think it's interesting because looking back, I can see that that was sort of a puzzle. All of my books are puzzles in a sense that this was about the puzzle of religion. Why do people believe it? And as someone who grew up secular, am I missing something by having no religion? And the answer was, it's complicated. Like everything, there are nuances, there are wonderful things I discovered about religion. And then there are parts that I still think are extremely dangerous. There's also gratitude, that was a big part of the Bible. And I got really into gratitude and actually wrote a whole other book about gratitude that was inspired by my year.
In Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, you went on a quest to become the healthiest you could possibly become physically and you delved into improving your immune system. Were any of your findings from that time particularly helpful when the pandemic rolled around?
I changed the way I ate and slept, went to the bathroom, and talked to my friends. So there was way too much to keep, but I did keep a lot that maybe helped me during the pandemic. Eating real food instead of processed crap. Also, moving as much as possible. I wrote the book while walking on a treadmill and I walked a few thousand miles. I still do that.
Tons of celebrities love puzzles. Hugh Jackman said that he does one hour of jigsaws a day and that fitting the pieces together gives him the same satisfaction as popping a zit.
Yes, if you're grossed out, blame him, not me. I could definitely relate though, there is a dopamine hit when you fit those pieces together. And weirdly jigsaws were my least favorite type of puzzle before this book, but I dove in and got into it. I even went to the world jigsaw puzzle championship with my family as Team USA. We did not do well. We did not represent our country well, so sorry, Americans. But many celebrities love puzzles, from Jon Stewart to Jesse Eisenberg. Stephen Sondheim was a huge fan of very tricky British crossword puzzles. And TV shows and movies feature many puzzles.
Right, there's tons of anagrams in shows and movies. Why do you think there's such a fascination with that type of word play in entertainment?
Yes there's "Redrum" in The Shining. In Harry Potter, "Tom Marvolo Riddle" is I am Lord Voldemort. In The Simpsons, Bart switches the letters for "cod platter" into cold pet rat. Not to mention Bart, his name is an anagram for Brat. I think it's fun as a writer to put Easter eggs in. So whether it's visual or anagrams, puzzles in general are very appealing to a lot of people in entertainment. I see puzzles sort of as a sub genre of entertainment.
Did you know that Taylor Swift puts tons of Easter eggs in her music videos, promotional material, social media posts and even her CD booklets? It creates a sense of camaraderie between her and her fans.
I actually do know that because my son is a Taylor Swift fan and he and he showed me some, especially in the liner notes in her albums. That's wonderful. I love celebrities who are really in to puzzles and I think there are a lot of them.
Even on Taylor's 2019 EW cover she worked with staffers on planting Easter eggs using the pins on her denim jacket.
Well I'm going to need to send her a copy of The Puzzler now. Maybe to one of her 42 houses.
The Men in Black Swan Game
How to play: You'll receive the plot of a movie, and you have to guess the film. The twist is, the movie that's being described is actually a mash-up of two movies that share a word in the title.
For instance, "Men in Black Swan" would be described as: Two sunglasses-wearing members of a secret organization that polices extraterrestrials end up joining a New York City ballet company.
Okay, now your turn:
A big cat who rules the plains of Africa must overcome his stutter.
An orca is stranded inside a candy-making plant, and forced to eat Everlasting Swedish Fish before being liberated by a young boy.
A man is picked up by a fishing boat, but has no memories. Turns out he's a trained assassin with an amazing singing voice, and is mentored by an older singer with whom he falls in love.
Jennifer Garner stars as a teenager who becomes an adult overnight in order to bankrupt a Vegas casino with a fake earthquake.
Billy Wilder directs this movie about a desperate alcoholic who pretends his dead boss's corpse is alive in order to get access to parties.
Jesse Eisenberg leads a team of magicians who pull off bank heists in war-torn Vietnam
A sloth and a wooly mammoth's romantic adventures among the upper class of Gilded Age New York
In this middling sequel, when a bestselling writer is kidnapped, it's up to her roguish adventurer boyfriend and the wrongly accused Atlanta Olympics bomber to find her
The Lion King's Speech
Free Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
A Star is Born Identity
Oceans 13 Going on 30
The Lost Weekend at Bernie's
Apocalypse Now You See Me
Ice Age of Innocence
Richard Jewell of the Nile