A good puzzle, wrote Stephen Sondheim, satisfies as deeply as the theater, culminating as it does in “the catharsis of solution.” In 2012 it was even discovered that a lifetime of mental exercise may ward off Alzheimer's. But when it comes time to shop for the brainteaser aficionado, how do you know s/he doesn't already own the latest trendy collection of crosswords or sudoku? I urge you to go retro instead, and give the gift of a classic puzzle book. Bonus: all of these are regular quadrilaterals in cross-section, so that wrapping them is no puzzle at all.
What Is the Name of This Book? by Raymond Smullyan (1978)
Experience Smullyan’s “timeless, mythic ... blend of the poetic and the mathematical" (in the words of Frank Lantz). The book features chapters like "The Mystery of Portia’s Caskets," in which generations of women named Portia choose their husbands by posing logic puzzles to them. Each suitor is given three caskets engraved with statements — for example, "The portrait is not in the Gold casket" — and must determine which one contains her portrait; each conundrum grows successively more difficult.
My Best Mathematical and Logic Puzzles by Martin Gardner (1994)
Best known for his decades-long column in Scientific American, Gardner remains the godfather of recreational mathematics. If you remove two opposing corner squares of a chessboard, can the remaining surface be tessellated with 2 x 1 dominoes? Using only a straightedge and compass, how can you construct a line that bisects a yin-yang?
Lateral Thinking Puzzlers by Paul Sloane (1992)
The later books in this series become far-fetched and obscure, but Sloane’s original volume captures the most elegant lateral thinking puzzles, in which the key to solution is not logic but insight — also known as outside-the-box thinking. “A man is lying dead in a field. Next to him there is an unopened package. There is no other creature in the field. How did he die?” (Parachute failed him.) “A man pushing his car stopped outside a hotel. As soon as he got there, he knew he was bankrupt. Why?” (You're on your own.)
The Joy of Mathematics by Theoni Pappas (1993)
In a similar vein to Donald in Mathmagic Land (surely one of the very best Disney films, by the way), Pappas awakens our wonder with this light tour through math, nature, and history. Between pages on the Fibonacci sequence, the golden rectangle, and Möbius strips, we find puzzles like Hotel Infinity, in which a hotel with an infinite number of rooms occupied must somehow accommodate an infinite bus load of new guests.
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott (1884)
Finally, this is not a book of puzzles at all, but a goofy and unforgettable novella for the same audience. The protagonist is a humble square — yes, of the four-sided variety — inhabiting a two-dimensional world in which noblemen are dodecagons and all women are straight line segments (the book doubles as Victorian social satire). One day when a circle appears, then enlarges, shrinks again, and vanishes, he realizes that a sphere has passed through and his consciousness is forever changed. Now why won’t anyone believe him?
Maybe math ain’t as tough a nut to crack as human nature....