Think you’re not a puzzle person? Think again. “We solve puzzles of every sort, every day. They show up in so many of our life choices – in our decision-making, in our development of human relationships, in time-management, and so on,” writes local Jewish community member Jonathan Berkowitz. “Although puzzles are usually considered to be activities of recreation, having any facility with puzzle-solving enhances other life skills. It helps you with listening, parsing, decoding, defining, lateral thinking – in short, problem-solving.”
In his recently published book, The Whirl of Words: Puzzling Past and Present (FriesenPress), Berkowitz gets into the nitty gritty – history, philosophy, etymology, mechanics – of puzzle construction and solving in a conversational style that makes for good reading, even if you don’t absorb all the details on the first go. In fact, an ability to give something the once-over and then revisit it is an important aspect of puzzle-solving. It’s the second of eight steps that Berkowitz offers for solving puzzles, which would serve well for any puzzling situation.
Puns, by the way, are a part of wordplay, which, writes Berkowitz, “involves perceiving patterns where none were expected. Pattern matching is a hallmark of intelligence. It is at the root of science and art. Much of thinking is really just finding the underlying pattern.”
Berkowitz is adept at both science and art. He appears regularly on CBC Radio 1, where he is “the Word Guy” on the show North by Northwest. He creates and solves puzzles and is a member of the National Puzzlers’ League. Oh, and he’s a professor of statistics at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.
The Whirl of Words is about all kinds of wordplay, the main types of which, Berkowitz explains, “involve letter play (wordplay involving the letters of the alphabet and their usage in words without regard to sound or sense), sound play (wordplay involving the sounds of words without regard to letters or meanings) and meaning play (wordplay involving the meanings of words without regard to letters or sounds).”
There is a chapter on numbers, both as words (one, two, three, etc.) and as mathematical concepts. There are discussions of the potential cognitive and other benefits of puzzle-solving, such as learning about a range of topics, from sports to geography to politics.
“Word puzzles improve vocabulary, grammar, spelling and communication skills, boost memory and enhance cognitive and analytical skills,” writes Berkowitz. “By improving your problem-solving skills, you may also improve your performance at work and in other areas of life. They can be a positive factor for your mental health, because focusing your attention on a puzzle can aid relaxation, ward off anxiety, and keep your emotions under control. After all, how can you think negative thoughts when you’re concentrating on a puzzle? And, doesn’t it feel fantastic when you solve a puzzle?”
Going back to his eight steps, out of context, they could be mistaken for a self-help guide:
- “The puzzle is in the details. Read the instructions carefully. Then read them again.”
- “Give it the once-over, twice. Assess the challenge.”
- “Don’t just sit there, try something.”
- “Don’t give up; persist.”
- “Open your toolbox.” What approach might lead to a solution?
- “Use the force wisely. Be systematic and efficient.”
- “Sleep on it…. Like a train, once you are on a track, it is difficult to change tracks. Put the puzzle aside and come back to it with fresh eyes and a refreshed brain.”
- “You are not alone. It is perfectly fine to seek help from resources.”
As is also true with general life circumstances, the key to getting better at something is to practise. And Berkowitz provides plenty of puzzles for readers to solve, as well as the answers to them at the end of each chapter.
The Whirl of Words includes a selected biography for those interested in further learning, and a much-needed glossary – most readers will discover many new words and terms while enjoying this book.
To read excerpts from The Whirl of Words and to purchase a copy of it for yourself or a fellow puzzle lover, visit thewhirlofwords.com.