Gay Talese’s Basement
by Dikla Kadosh
Even more than a brilliant smile, I’ve always wanted a shining intellect. I didn’t get braces until I was 22, but after two years of throbbing pain, food in liquid form and the embarrassment of being mistaken for a 14-year-old, I have accomplished the first goal. And, after four years of college and a year at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, I don’t think it’s terribly arrogant to say I have acquired a minty mind.
To keep my teeth, now worth $6,000, in great condition, I brush, floss and gargle regularly. Well, almost. To keep my brain, now worth $184,000, in equally good shape, I should read The New York Times, The Economist and The New Yorker, watch “Jeopardy!” and the History Channel, and read a novel a week. But who the hell has time to do all that? I certainly don’t, and apparently there are 80,000 other people in 17 countries with the same dilemma, because they are all subscribing to or regularly buying mental_floss, which is like continuing your liberal arts education in convenient monthly installments.
The January/February issue touches on European history like no professor I’ve ever had, with an article about France’s King Henry IV’s powerful mistress. It transports you back to Friday morning literature classes with a review of a beloved and scandalous book, “Portnoy’s Complaint,” by Philip Roth. A history of Jasper Johns’ revolutionary artistic movement leaves you feeling like you’ve just walked out of a lecture on modern art. And a discourse on free trade rounds out your condensed education with a bit of economics.
In true instructional fashion, mental_floss includes a quiz in every issue, with questions such as “Hydra, from Greek mythology, sported how many heads?” and “Fort Orange is the former name of what U.S. capital city?” (If you’re anything like the trivia-crazed author of this review, you won’t be able to go on reading until you know the answers: nine and Albany.)
Packed with quirky facts, historical anecdotes and obscure trivia, a smart-ass magazine like mental_floss could get irritating, or as boring as an encyclopedia. And with subject matter that ranges from the Spam Museum in Minnesota to the burgeoning tourist industry in Dubai, it also runs the risk of feeling disjointed. But mental_floss craftily avoids these pitfalls.
It strikes a balance between several key elements. The data-heavy content is spiced with just enough sixth-grade humor and clever turns of phrase, such as titling a section about historical figures who fell from grace “Humpty Dumpties,” that you find yourself enjoying an item about bladderwort (which I would have thought is a painful obstacle to peeing had I not read that it is a rootless, carnivorous plant that floats in large bodies of water and preys on tiny helpless creatures).
In its 72 pages, the magazine also successfully sandwiches well-written and intelligent longer features in the middle with snappier items in the front and back of the book. A five-page article explaining the complex conflicts raging between East Timor and Indonesia, Israel and Palestine, and Rwanda’s Hutus and Tutsis is balanced by a one-page article about the greatest moments in competitive eating (the world record for raw oysters is 552 in 10 minutes).
The page designs are as colorful and all-over-the-place as the topics, but what ties everything together into a neat little bundle is the spirit of amusement and genuine delight in knowledge. Current events, trivia, history and pop culture are all dealt with in the same giddy breath, although the magazine also shows its maturity by treating serious subjects, well, seriously. The team behind mental_floss can produce sober work, but they’ve made humor their niche. Co-founder Mangesh Hattikudur’s biography on the website says, “When he’s not dreaming and scheming for the floss, Mangesh loves movies, comic strips, PEZ dispensers, doodling, cooking puppies and leaving out commas wherever inappropriate.” Hattikudur is one of the five Duke University graduates who started the magazine while still in school. With support from their alma mater, advice from magazine consultant Samir Husni and partnerships with HowStuffWorks.com and UselessKnowledge.com, the quirky magazine was launched in 2001.
It was received with warmth and amusement by the media. The Washington Post called it “delightfully eccentric and eclectic.” Newsweek declared it was “a smart(-alecky) read” and The Chicago Tribune said, “For the discerning intellect, mental_floss cleans out the cobwebs.”
Apparently readers like it, too. Media experts say that on average, a new magazine sells 20 to 30 percent of its newsstand copies. But in interviews, Will Pearson—the magazine’s co-founder, president and publisher, who eats M&Ms two at a time, one on each side of the mouth—said mental_floss sold 72 percent of its first issue and about 70 percent of its second issue.
Maloney expects circulation to hit the 100,000 mark in 2006. And though the advertising revenue isn’t anything to brag about (I counted nine lonely ads in the January/February issue), he said the magazine is doing well financially, thanks to a combination of spin-off products—three published books, with four more on the way; syndicated content; a weekly segment on “CNN Headline News”; a board game; and lots of geeky-cool paraphernalia, such as logo T-shirts and an Einstein relativity watch. Einstein, just so you know, makes an appearance on every cover because, as the editors explain on the website, “he is the wind beneath our wings.”
With my chaotic schedule, I don’t think I will have time to read the mental_floss books or play the game, but I will tell you one thing: I don’t need any doctor to guilt trip me into making this magazine a part of my routine. From now on, I’m (mental) flossing every day.