My college roommate, Scott Eberle, recently published a column in Psychology Today in defense of jigsaw puzzles. He was prompted by a petty and priggish column in the Washington Post. Its author took a riskily brave stance and condemned jigsaw puzzles. Not video games, gambling or sniffing glue, mind you. Scott is a person whose memory makes me smile. He’s one of the smartest, funniest people I know. For thirty years he has worked for the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y., where he is now vice president for interpretation, and editor of The American Journal of Play. In his column, Scott behaves like a gentleman but pretty well eviscerates the twit’s arguments and condescension: “He is wrong on three counts,” and so forth.
In 2009, Scott published Classic Toys of the National Toy Hall of Fame (Running Press). In 2002, jigsaw puzzles had been inducted into that Hall of Fame. Scott describes their allure: “Unfinished jigsaw puzzles draw kibitzers like a magnet. A passerby will see where a stray piece belongs and can’t keep the secret. The commotion draws others in.” The urge, in other words, is primally human. In “The Creative Writer,” a lecture he delivered in 1941, now collected in Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor (2019), Vladimir Nabokov uses an inspired metaphor to help explain inspiration:
“[I]t is like a jigsaw puzzle that instantly comes together in your brain with the brain itself unable to observe how and why the pieces fit, and you experience a shuddering sensation of wild magic, of some inner resurrection, as if a dead man were revived by a sparkling drug which has been rapidly mixed in your presence.”
Nabokov is describing his own sensibility as a writer. Among novelists, we think of him as the master puzzle-maker and he is, especially in Pale Fire. But if he were only a puzzle-maker, not the creator of indelible characters, explorations of moral complexities, and peerless prose, we might consign him to the back pages of an airline magazine. I read Nabokov to be reminded of the wonders of the human imagination. In Speak, Memory, he writes of his mother:
“She loved all games of skill and gambling. Under her expert hands, the thousand bits of a jigsaw puzzle gradually formed an English hunting scene: what had seemed to be the limb of a horse would turn out to belong to an elm and the hitherto unplaceable piece would snugly fill up a gap in the mottled background, affording one the delicate thrill of an abstract and yet tactile satisfaction.”
[Watch Laurel and Hardy’s Me and My Pal (1933), a dissertation on the psychology of jigsaw puzzles.]