Cover image for The Shape of Difficulty: A Fan Letter to Unruly Objects By Bret L. Rothstein

The Shape of Difficulty

A Fan Letter to Unruly Objects

Bret L. Rothstein

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$29.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08242-4

228 pages
7" × 9"
38 color illustrations
2019

The Shape of Difficulty

A Fan Letter to Unruly Objects

Bret L. Rothstein

“And yet, though Rothstein is getting unabashedly granular on the field of enigmatology—a field that attracts mathematicians, engineers, and literal rocket scientists more often than fine artists—he manages to present his findings and musings in highly accessible and even funny language. The sincere joy he takes in unraveling the philosophy behind difficult objects is not lost in his academic formatting.”

 

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What is it about puzzles that drives us to figure them out? In this unique and innovative book, Bret L. Rothstein explores how mechanical problems delight and frustrate us, distracting our attention from recognizably “useful” activities and directing it toward something that may be even more important.

All too often puzzles can seem like some kind of cruel test to be beaten or passed. But according to Rothstein, they really want nothing more than for us to drop what we are doing and play. In that way, they can actually enhance consciousness, as we are perhaps never more aware than when we grapple with an object that refuses to satisfy our expectations. The Shape of Difficulty is an ode to and exploration of these “unruly objects”—Rubik's cubes, geometric dissections, secret-opening boxes, string disentanglements, and so many more—that bring interpretive failure out of the shadows and allow it to take center stage in physical ways. While many puzzles may offer perceptible expressions of mathematical concepts, logical propositions, and logistical problems, this book urges readers to dwell for a while with objects that, built specifically to be misunderstood, demand that we reconsider our approaches to understanding—and, in the bargain, how we conceive of the interpretive self.

Drawing on landmark theories of play, Rothstein’s richly illustrated meditation on our fascination with objects reveals the lasting allure of puzzles while underscoring the intellectual worth of doubt, failure, and idle time.

“And yet, though Rothstein is getting unabashedly granular on the field of enigmatology—a field that attracts mathematicians, engineers, and literal rocket scientists more often than fine artists—he manages to present his findings and musings in highly accessible and even funny language. The sincere joy he takes in unraveling the philosophy behind difficult objects is not lost in his academic formatting.”
“An innovative, charming, and mysterious study about puzzles. Bret Rothstein’s book provides readers with unusual and unexpected insights into the enigmatic world of people who make puzzles and those who aspire to solve them.”
“By their very nature, puzzles pose challenges—for both their makers and their solvers. How much more, then, does the actual study of puzzles challenge existing categories of scholarship! There is (as yet) no academic department of enigmatology, but if there were, this book would be its primer; however, this is no mere survey. Ranging across examples of ‘unruly objects’ in varied materials from the Renaissance to the present, Bret Rothstein's analyses make work out of play and vice versa, and we are all beneficiaries of his brilliant insights—dare one say decryptions?”
“Embracing difficulty rather than avoiding it, Rothstein reveals a rich landscape of feints and foils, challenging chokepoints and seductive passageways. From classic burr and disentanglement puzzles to elegant puzzle boxes and even more baffling devices, come explore the pleasures of tactility, dexterity, geometry, problem-solving, but also the tantalizing appeal of misdirection and defeat, however temporary. This book will appeal to puzzlers seeking a more sophisticated philosophy of their art form, but also to anyone interested in the scholarship on play and games.”

Bret L. Rothstein teaches at Indiana University, where his courses address the cultural work of images and objects. He has published extensively on early Netherlandish devotional culture, sixteenth-century humanist wit, and the sociocultural ramifications of ludic objects.

Contents

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgments

Some Potentially Useful Terms

Introduction: What We Talk About When We Talk About Difficulty

1 Simplicity and the Perils of Common Sense

2 Complexity and the Problem of Finding Your Way

3 De-emphasis and the Force of Mental Rumor

4 Misdirection and the Question of Interpretive Congruence

5 Subject and Not-Subject in Enigmatology

Conclusion: Why Bother

Notes

Bibliography

Index