Picks

The Best, Most Riveting Puzzle Books, From Novice to Expert

An NYT calendar is seen alongside two puzzle books.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon.

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I blame public transportation for my sudoku addiction. When I moved to Beijing after college, I had to adapt to getting myself from point A to point B by bus or subway rather than by car. A public transport novice, I found it hard to focus on books or articles, for fear I’d miss my stop. But sudoku allowed my mind to easily toggle back and forth between the puzzle page and the subway map. Filling in those little numerical squares was also soothing; every correctly completed line of numbers suffused me with satisfaction. I took to working on puzzles anytime I had a few minutes to kill—standing in line for coffee, sitting on hold with a customer service representative, waiting for my bread to toast.

Sudoku puzzles led me to crossword puzzles. I loved the mix of trivia and wordplay, and the challenge of trying to complete a puzzle entirely in pen (with only a correction or two!). Over the past few years, these puzzles have become regular travel companions. I’ve used them to occupy the hours during long layovers and lazy weekend afternoons.

I also appreciate crosswords for the opportunity they’ve given me to bond over words. When the COVID-19 lockdowns began, my grandmother’s nursing home also locked down. My parents moved her into their house so tthey could better look after her well-being. She suffers from short-term memory loss, so adjusting to the abrupt change of setting proved difficult. We had never been that close, and, sitting with her day after day in my parents’ living room, I didn’t know what to say to her.

I realized, though, she could still do crossword puzzles. Here was something we could connect over, even if just for the time it takes to get through all the DOWN and ACROSS clues. We’ve now completed hundreds of puzzles together, and over time, I’ve figured out our respective strengths: I cover pop culture questions, and she knows all the names of old politicians and actors; we both struggle with sports references. Whenever we finish a puzzle and I ask her if she wants to do another one, whether it’s the first or fifth one of the day, she always says, “Oh, I think I could do one more.”

This holiday season will be like none we’ve ever experienced before—some of us will be pent up at our parents’ house, the movie theaters and malls off-limits. Many of us will be alone, looking to fill our quiet space. As we all try to muddle our way through this, we can still find comfort in some simple pleasures, like curling up with a book and figuring out the four-letter answer for “elusive legend” (answer: YETI). I’ve curated a list of some of my favorite books that all puzzlers, from young beginners to experienced pros, can enjoy. Whether you need a break from family, are holed up at home, or are in desperate need of something that’s not a screen to occupy your kids this winter break, there’s something here for everyone.

Puzzles to Cozy Up With

Whether you give them out as gifts or keep them for yourself, these books, with their warm and fuzzy themes, are perfect for lounging by the fire, a mug of hot cocoa in one hand and a pencil (or pen!) in the other.

For Easy Reading and Writing

Books with large print, big letter squares, and spiral binding, which make them easier to read and write in, are great for sharing with an older or vision-impaired friend or family member. These are some of the books my grandmother and I enjoyed working on together; I’ve loved listening to her explain all the retro references.

Not Your Average Puzzle Book

Puzzling is not limited to sudoku, KenKen, or crosswords. From bunches of Bananagrams-themed puzzles to a collection of Sherlock Holme–inspired brain teasers, there is nothing typical about these books. Between their pages you’ll find enough anagrams to unscramble, codes to crack, and wordplay riddles to resolve, to satisfy the most discerning of puzzle aficionados.

By the Numbers

Here are a few books to interest and challenge those less interested in word games and more numerically inclined, whether beginner or an expert. Sudoku and KenKen are logic-based puzzles that involve filling out a grid with a sequence of numbers without repeating the same number within a line or section; KenKen, however, involves some additional math problem-solving. Let me add that even if math isn’t your thing, don’t be intimated! Once you get started, you might find these puzzles strangely addictive—I sure did! These books would also be great for students working on their math and logic skills.

Specially for Kids

Given how much school, socialization, and activities have moved online, some screen detox will be even more imperative than usual this holiday season. Puzzle books are a fantastic diversion—no charging cables or Wi-Fi necessary. These books are as great for road trips as they are for kitchen tables. Dole them out at opportune times, stick them in a stocking, or leave one on your loved one’s pillow. Whether you work on them together or solo, they can turn an hour of cranky boredom into an hour of delightful, focused quiet.

Stocking Stuffers

These fun little gems are great for anyone who’s new to crossword or sudoku puzzles and needs some daily inspiration to get started. Once they get started on one a day, they’ll soon be craving more.