Zibby is joined by the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs, to talk about his latest book, The Puzzler. The two discuss their personal favorite kinds of puzzles, how puzzles have recently and historically brought people together, and the most important lesson puzzles can teach us. To participate in The Puzzler Hunt contest for the chance to win $10,000, check out this link and crack the cipher before the final round starts on June 4th!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, A.J. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life.

A.J. Jacobs: I am delighted to be here. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: This was such an interesting read. First of all, I amused myself by trying to do a bunch of the puzzles and have decided the only ones I’m good at are the anagrams. I don’t know what that says about me. Those, I could look at and rearrange the letters right away.

A.J.: Anagrams are fun. Are you a Spelling Bee fan? Do you like Spelling Bee?

Zibby: You know, now that I’ve read your book and heard about the thing that keeps you up in the middle of the night, the Spelling Bee challenge, I’m going to have to start doing that at three in the morning. I hadn’t been doing that.

A.J.: It’s super addictive. What about Wordle?

Zibby: I do Wordle.

A.J.: You do do Wordle. Wordle is lovely. My friend calls it the Tom Hanks of puzzles. It’s very nice, non-threatening. I also love the Wordle spinoffs. There’s so many of them. They’re so funny, like the Taylordle with Taylor Swift-related words.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. My teenage twins, we have a group text. Every day, we send each other our Wordle — the results. My daughter will freak out when she hears that there actually exists a Taylor Swift Wordle. That will be all she will do from now on, so maybe I won’t even tell her.

A.J.: My son is a Taylor Swift fan, so they can compare scores.

Zibby: Perfect. We’ll add your son to the text. As our conversation indicates, your book focuses a lot on different mind puzzles, from where they began, pre-Will Shortz, to how they’ve evolved and what it even means to be obsessed with puzzles and your understanding of that for yourself, for your family, the Rubik’s Cube. It was really, really fascinating. Talk a little about when — I know you’ve been doing puzzles your whole life, and this is in your DNA — when this became a book idea for you and how your pursuit of all of this knowledge really came together.

A.J.: I’ve always loved puzzles since I was a kid. I didn’t have a busy dating schedule as a kid, so I had lots of time for puzzles. I loved them. It sort of shaped the way I look at the world. I see everything as a puzzle. One of my previous books was called The Year of Living Biblically where I followed all the rules of the Bible. That was about the puzzle of religion and my heritage and Judaism. What should I believe? That’s a puzzle. I wrote one about gratitude. How do you be grateful in this world where it’s sometimes very hard to be grateful? Then I decided for this one, let me just stop beating around the bush and actually dive into my passion, which is puzzles of all kinds. Then I could print the puzzles, but I could go on these adventures. It really solidified when I found a starting anecdote, a starting story, which is that a few years ago, I was the answer to 1-Down in The New York Times crossword puzzle, which for a word nerd, was the highlight of my life. My wedding to my wife, that’s pretty good. This, this was the holy grail. I was riding high. Then my brother-in-law emailed me. He did congratulate me. I want to throw that out there. He also pointed out that I was in the Saturday puzzle. If you know anything about The New York Times crossword, Saturday is the hardest day, harder than Sunday. All the answers are totally obscure. No one’s supposed to know them. His point was, this is not a compliment. This is proof that no one knows who you are. Then I’m crushed. The happy ending, though, is I told that story on a podcast. It happened that one of The New York Times crossword puzzle makers was listening. He decided to save me and put me in a Tuesday puzzle. Monday is the best, but Tuesday is still pretty good. I don’t belong there. That’s where Lady Gaga and people like that belong. I totally did not belong in the Tuesday puzzle, but he had pity on me. He put me in there. That was the greatest day. That’s how I start the book.

Zibby: Which all goes to show you never know what happens when you go on someone’s podcast. You don’t know who is listening, so you might as well throw something out to the universe. You never know what’ll happen.

A.J.: I’m waiting for something after this podcast. I just know it.

Zibby: I know. Let’s see. What can we manufacture? What puzzle-related wish is still on your list? I don’t know.

A.J.: That’s right. I got to come up with some problem in my life that someone else can solve from listening to this. By the end, I’ll have something for you.

Zibby: It might not be puzzle-related at all. We’ll see what we can do. You talked interestingly about even the evolution of the modern crossword puzzle. It wasn’t even called crosswords. It was called wordcross. My heart really went out to you, how you spent nine days trying to solve the hardest crossword puzzle in existence. Tell that story.

A.J.: The guy who actually saved me and put me in the Tuesday puzzle is known for writing the most devious crosswords. His motto is, if you have to ask how hard, then it’s not for you. These are just dreadful but delightful. You got to have a little masochism but also want that payoff. As you mentioned, I also talked about the history of the crossword puzzle, which was hilarious. They were invented in 1913. It appeared in the New York World newspaper. They became a sensation, but one newspaper refused to print them. That was The New York Times. They thought they were too lowbrow. They were snooty. What I loved is, I looked at the coverage in the twenties and thirties in The New York Times of crossword puzzles, and you would think — it was like crack cocaine in the eighties. It was a pestilence on society. It caused divorces and murders and, literally, prison riots. All of these were real articles. I love that. Then in 1942, World War II started. They decided people needed some distraction, and they finally buckled. Now, of course, as you know from Wordle, they are the premier place for puzzles. You never know.

Zibby: I feel like it’s more like the social media of its time. It’s how people were connecting, this joint activity that I feel like on a fundamental level, people really need, whether it’s a great book we’re all reading or a great show we’re all watching or the crossword of the day. There aren’t that many things left that we can all do on a schedule and enjoy together, at least a crossword puzzle and maybe now Wordle. Wordle now too, they’re all tapping into that.

A.J.: I love that you say that. It’s so true. It is a very social activity. I love that you do that with your kids. I saw Josh Wardle speak at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which was a couple months ago, which I competed in. It was a disaster. I say that I like to savor the puzzles more than rush through them. He had a lovely speech where he talked about how it was really bringing people together. He even had an anecdote of a gay man who was ostracized from his family because they were very conservative, but they bonded over Wordle. This was how they restarted their relationship. I do believe — that’s one of the big themes of the book. Puzzles a force for good. They bring people together, like you say.

Zibby: I didn’t realize Wordle was named after a person.

A.J.: Josh Wardle, but I think it’s W-A-R-D-L-E. The pun is that it’s Wordle with an O. Very clever, these people.

Zibby: Did he talk about how he ended up inventing it?

A.J.: Oh, yeah. It’s a great story. It’s a love story. You should have him on the — I guess he hasn’t written a book. He did it for his girlfriend at the time who loved puzzles. Then he just started sending it out to a couple of friends. It took off. It was funny, actually, because my book, in some senses, the timing was fantastic. I started it a few months before the pandemic. Then the pandemic came, and puzzles were huge everywhere. Jigsaw puzzles, which I have a chapter on, you couldn’t find them. It was like hand sanitizer or toilet paper.

Zibby: I just got one as a gift today, actually. It’s on my desk, Springtime at the Library, five hundred pieces, double-sided, Michael Storrings. I am never going to be able to do this. That’s my challenge.

A.J.: My mom gave me that very same puzzle.

Zibby: No way.

A.J.: She was a volunteer at the library, a docent. That’s funny. I haven’t done it yet either.

Zibby: I am sure you will do it in about one millionth the time it will take me.

A.J.: I am not so sure. I have a chapter on jigsaws. My family and I went to Spain right before the pandemic to represent the United States in the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship. Unfortunately, we embarrassed our country. We came in second to last, at least not last. We beat Portugal, so that was nice. I didn’t always love jigsaws, but I learned to love them.

Zibby: I feel like jigsaw puzzles tap into a totally different part of the mind than some of these word puzzles. Even Wordle taps into something totally different than the crossword. Some of it is knowledge. This is spatial relations, which I am terrible at. They all have something a little bit different, I’m sure working together. It’s all great for you.

A.J.: You’re absolutely right. I compare it to dating. There’s a different type of puzzle for everyone. If you’re good at spatial relations, like you say, you have Rubik’s Cube. There are also different benefits. The jigsaw, unless you’re in the jigsaw puzzle tournament, which is a speed tournament, is very meditative. I’m not a good meditator, but I do find putting these little pieces together is very relaxing. Others find that satisfying. I listened to Hugh Jackman on a podcast recently. He’s a huge jigsaw puzzle fan, which I did not know. He compared it — this is a little gross, so blame him but not me. He said it. He said that when he puts the two pieces together and feels that, that it’s like popping a really good zit.

Zibby: That’s not where I thought you were going with that, but okay. I didn’t know what was coming, but that was not the direction I had anticipated.

A.J.: I wanted to warn you. I wanted a trigger warning, but then it wasn’t actually that bad.

Zibby: Speaking of what I thought you might have said, I just wanted to read this one paragraph. Your book is really funny. You have a really funny sense of humor.

A.J.: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: I mean it. You probably know that. You said, “Why do I and millions of others love puzzles? Why would anyone bother frustrating themselves so much? I don’t consider myself a masochist, at least not in the literal sense. I don’t like physical pain. I have no moral problem with S&M, though I do find the prospect of it tiring. It involves too much equipment for me. It’s the same reason I don’t like skiing.” I laughed out loud when I read that sentence, by the way. That was really funny.

A.J.: Thank you so much for noticing that one. It’s a hundred percent true. No moral problem. It just seems exhausting to me. Same with skiing. I think it’s partly because I don’t own skis, so I have to rent them. It’s six hours online and then an hour on the slope. Thank you for noticing.

Zibby: No problem. I agree with you re skiing. I grew up skiing. This is sounding very privileged. I apologize for that, but it just is how I grew up. Anyway, I grew up skiing. As a grown-up, I have decided that the payoff is completely not worth the time. I am not doing it. I am not traveling to a faraway mountain and getting all the stuff and waiting in the lines for the joy in that downward slope. I can’t.

A.J.: I am with you, but some love it.

Zibby: I know. I know.

A.J.: Like S&M. More power to them.

Zibby: You know what? They can all have fun together. S&M clubs and ski resorts, maybe we have an untapped market here.

A.J.: Brilliant. You’re a good businessperson. It’s good.

Zibby: Maybe this is what this podcast is going to bring into the world. God help us. What was it like for you compiling all of these puzzles? Did you try doing them all again as you were — how did you even pick which ones to put in the book and which ones to leave behind and all of that when you were structuring the book itself?

A.J.: I wanted some that would be fun for people to do. I love that you love anagrams because I do too. Then I also wanted just the craziest puzzles ever. For instance, I have a chapter on secret codes. One of the most famous unsolved puzzles in the world is at the headquarters of the CIA. It’s been there for thirty-two years. Not even the CIA has solved it, and it’s kind of their job. It’s this secret code on a sculpture. It’s called Kryptos. People have solved part of it, but part of it remains unsolved. Just the obsession, that’s what I love, these communities, thousands of people who are obsessed. Every day, they have new theories. Oh, it’s Moby Dick. No. I think the secret is going to be Navajo wind talkers. Then when I went there — I got permission from the CIA to go there. I was like their secret spy. They had all these projects for me to do while I was down there, like see if there’s a hidden microphone in this hole. That was hilarious. I wanted a mix of ones people could do but also ones that were really wild that I could write about.

Zibby: Speaking of code, this book is unique in that you said in the introduction somewhere — I did spend a few minutes on this and, of course, failed — that you had buried a secret code and that then you can go onto your website, I think you said The Puzzler, and type in. If you get the code, then you get access to a bunch of puzzles. Then you can win ten thousand dollars, right? Tell me about this.

A.J.: Yes. This is only open until June 4th. I’m not sure when the podcast will drop.

Zibby: We’ll find out. I never know when anything’s airing.

A.J.: What happened was, as a kid, I loved this book, Masquerade. You may be too young for that. Do you remember it at all?

Zibby: I don’t think it’s my age. I just don’t think I know it. I’m forty-five, so I feel like I’m not too young for really anything.

A.J.: No, no, I’m older. You’re a youngster for me. It was a British illustrated book. In it, the illustrations hid the clues to a hidden treasure. It was 1979. It just caused a madness. People were — this is in England — digging up yards everywhere, trespassing, threatening the author. I was obsessed with it. I thought, since I’m writing a book about puzzles, I got to do something similar. I don’t want to bury anything because I don’t want to cause trespassing. I wanted to have a little secret code. In the intro, which is available, as you say, for free on thepuzzlerbook.com — you don’t need to buy the book. I hope you do, but you don’t need to. Then in there is a secret code. If you go to thepuzzlerbook.com, there are hints, so you should do that if you haven’t. If you crack the code, it opens up to this wild, what’s called a puzzle hunt, which is kind of like an escape room but on bath salts. It is over twenty puzzles. If you solve them, you get to the final round, which starts on June 4th. If you win that, you win ten thousand dollars. I didn’t do the puzzles. They’re by these geniuses. I can make okay puzzles, but these are like Michelangelo puzzles. These are amazing.

Zibby: Wow. Are you going to announce the answer for all of us who tried to crack the code and didn’t?

A.J.: Absolutely, yes, after June 4th. I can’t do it. Otherwise, I’ll get in a lot of trouble with a lot of people.

Zibby: Yes, of course. I will check back then. I kept trying different — I don’t know. It was worth a shot.

A.J.: Yeah, it was worth a shot. Keep trying. Don’t give up. Again, look on the website. It’s got lots of hints that are important.

Zibby: I think that’s another really important thing about people who do puzzles, the willingness to go past the point of frustration and just stick to it. You mentioned how one strategy is just going through crossword questions. Finally, you find one. Then slowly, you do it. One thing slowly leads to another. We have to have that patience. I don’t know that I have that patience right now, at least not in this time in my life. For the real advanced puzzler, how can they not give up? How do you make sure you stick to it? How do you inspire a lay puzzler like myself to not give up early?

A.J.: It has taught me a lot of stick-to-itiveness and grit and all those other things that we’re supposed to instill in our kids. One thing is, there are plenty of puzzles where you don’t really need much. The Spelling Bee, that’s constant dopamine hits. You’ll get a word. Then you’ll get another. That’s nice. The really hard puzzles, yeah, you definitely need some. One big strategy, which has been around forever, Leonardo DaVinci — I almost said Leonardo DiCaprio.

Zibby: I thought that’s what you were going to say. That’s even more pathetic.

A.J.: Oh, good. Leonardo DaVinci wrote about this. He said when you’re confronted with a problem — he was talking about painting — walk away. Take a nap. Do something else. Your brain works in mysterious ways. It marinates in the back of your brain. You come back, and you have a new, fresh perspective. Don’t give up forever. Give up for ten minutes. Give up for a day. Then come back. That’s one big lesson I learned.

Zibby: All right. Maybe I’ll try your introduction again in a little bit.

A.J.: Tomorrow.

Zibby: Tomorrow, maybe. What is coming next? What book? What are you attacking next?

A.J.: That’s a puzzle, if you will.

Zibby: That’s a puzzle, yes.

A.J.: I do love getting suggestions, so if readers have suggestions. I’ve gotten tons over the years. Some have been great. I get a lot, weirdly, try to become the greatest lover in the world. Do all the positions in the Kama Sutra.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness.

A.J.: I did bring it up to my wife. She’s like, “No way. That sounds exhausting and horrible,” which I kind of agree with. I don’t have the flexibility.

Zibby: But you considered it, so that’s good.

A.J.: For a nanosecond. If there’s some journalist listening, please enjoy. I would read it, but I don’t want to read it about myself.

Zibby: Note. If this is you listening and you’ve decided to take that idea and run with it, you must dedicate your book to A.J. Jacobs.

A.J.: Or don’t mention me at all.

Zibby: That might be better.

A.J.: That’s another option.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

A.J.: I do. Let me give you two. One is that I believe ideas are the life breath and lifeblood of writing. Very rarely will an editor come and say, here’s an idea. Will you write it? Some people are good at coming up with ideas while walking or taking a shower. I actually need to set aside a time. I need a little date with myself where I carve out fifteen minutes. I turn off my computer and my iPhone. I just brainstorm, come up with ideas. Maybe I’ll have magazines around or something to let my mind play with. That, to me, is very important. Every day, I spend fifteen minutes idea-generating. Then the other one — I’ve given a couple of speeches to writing groups. I have this phrase, strategic chutzpah, the Jewish phrase for cojones. You’ve got to put yourself out there. You’ve got to network. You’ve got to be okay with rejection. At the start of my career, I’d be lucky if it was a ninety-nine percent rejection rate. I still have a high rejection rate, and I’ve been doing this a long time. Just know that that is part of it. You’ve got to have chutzpah. If you don’t, pretend to have chutzpah. Fake it until you feel it, which I still do a lot. Those are just some little nuggets in case they’re helpful.

Zibby: Amazing. Maybe your next book could be about failure.

A.J.: That’s an interesting idea. I like it.

Zibby: The chutzpah concept.

A.J.: Then if the book fails, I can be like, that was all part of the plan.

Zibby: Yeah. See? A.J., thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” This was so fascinating. It was more than a book. It was a book. It was a mind-teaser. It was great. It’s a bonus section. It was great. I’m so glad I read it.

A.J.: Thank you, Zibby. In the spirit of gratitude, thank you for what you do for authors and getting the word out and being an author yourself. Thank you for putting the lovely content into the world. Thank you.

Zibby: Aw, that’s very sweet. In the spirit of gratitude, also, thank you to Jon Levy for introducing us. That was also very nice.

A.J.: Yes, we love Jon.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Take care.

A.J.: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: This was fun. Buh-bye.

A.J.: Bye-bye.


THE PUZZLER by A.J. Jacobs

Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts