Thirty years ago, the CIA commissioned an artwork named “Kryptos” to be installed at their headquarters in Langley, Va. The artist, Jim Sanborn, created a 20-foot-long copper sculpture consisting of four panels with letters scrambled on the surface—a code-themed puzzle known as a cipher. Since its creation, three of the four panels have been solved. The last panel remains stubbornly illusive. Many believe the scrambled letters hint at something buried somewhere on the grounds of the CIA. Internet forms go wild with speculation on what it could be.
To research his latest book, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life, AJ Jacobs was given special permission to visit Kryptos on the CIA campus. He attempts to solve the cipher… and fails miserably, of course. But Jacobs doesn’t mind. It’s the journey that counts.
Kryptos is just one of the puzzles that Jacobs tries to solve in his exploration of all things puzzles. Jacobs is known for his books where he immerses himself in yearlong projects. Other books include The Year of Living Biblically, where he tries to live by all of the biblical commandments, and Drop Dead Healthy, where he attempts to become the healthiest person in the world.
Failing to solve complex puzzles is understandable. Failing to solve simple puzzles can be infuriating. Essential to the journey is a motto Jacobs embraces after talking to an expert at puzzling: “Don’t get furious, get curious!” Taking this message to heart, he pauses near the beginning of his book to ask two important questions: “what is a puzzle?” and “why do we like them?” According to Jacobs, a puzzle is anything that causes a solver to experience a period of difficulty, followed by relief. The struggle can be painful. Solving a puzzle can be euphoric. The reason why we like puzzles is more complicated. There are several theories, and the best answer is probably a combination of them.
Even without the reasons why we love puzzles firmly in hand, Jacobs considers himself a lifelong lover of puzzles. The first puzzle Jacobs tackles is the crossword. Then he wrestles with the Rubik's cube. From there, he explores every kind of puzzle imaginable—anagrams, jigsaws, mazes, ciphers, sudoku, KenKen, riddles, Japanese puzzle boxes, and scavenger hunts—just to name a few.
The greatest puzzle of all is the meaning of life—a puzzle that Jacobs faces in the final chapter of his book. Does he crack the code? Does he solve the scrambled clues? Does he unlock the symbols and discover what life is all about? Read the chapter called “Infinite Puzzles” to find out! (Crown/Random House)
About the Author
Sam Gutierrez is the Associate Director at the Eugene Peterson Center for the Christian Imagination at Western Theological Seminary. More of his creative work can be found at printandpoem.com