The Wonder Boys
An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.
Ah, if only the late, great Monsieur Camus’ words still rang true today. Unfortunately his definition of an intellectual seems to have gotten lost in a world where anybody and everybody with an opinion, and more importantly, a podium from which to dispense said opinion, can pontificate loudly with no proper research or background in the subject matter. Blame it on a “global village” world, where snippets of 24/7 news blurbs have come to replace a serious pursuit of knowledge, and where the media talking heads frequently set the tone for what most of us come to accept as fact.
But all hope isn’t lost. Look around your local subway train, and you’re sure to see the majority of passengers with their noses buried in books. People still read voraciously, and many are still interested—despite their busy everyday schedule—to set a few minutes aside for extracurricular learning.
On that note, enter Condensed Knowledge (an offspring of Mental Floss magazine (http://www.mentalfloss.com)), which dubs itself as “a deliciously irreverent guide to feeling smart again.” Chockfull of offbeat factoids, the book serves as a savvy, off-the-cuff bible on a variety of topics, ranging from Pop Culture to Economics to Religion. However, instead of providing the usual list, of say, the greatest Modern Artists of all time or brief histories of the major religions, the book offers unusual, hard-to-find facts, opting instead for chapters on “Scandals that Rocked Art,” and “Religious Rituals that Hurt like Hell.”
The brainchild of two Duke University students (Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur), who would sit around their dorm watching episodes of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and bouncing around ideas for their post-graduation plans, Mental Floss (the magazine from which the book was born), started as a mere campus newsletter. The official magazine was then kicked off in 2001, when Pearson and Hattikudur managed to lure investors and funding and establish an impressive advisory board. Not bad for a couple of recent college grads who haven’t yet turned 25.
And the rest, as they say, is history. The reception and response to both the magazine and book has been overwhelming, and the press, in particular has been fascinated by the entrepreneurial aspect of the story, starring a couple of ambitious, savvy kids with no journalism background, who have managed to make a serious dent in the publishing world.
Gushing praise from a slew of media, including the Washington Post, L.A. Times and CNN (on which Pearson has made various appearances) have further bolstered the Condensed Knowledge and Mental Floss “brand” into a serious force to be reckoned with. In addition to promoting the book and magazine to national media, the team has also resorted to seeking publicity amongst smaller venues, in addition to relying on other unusual resources. As primary investor and publicity director Toby Maloney explains: “I have a relative who owns a rather large dairy. We approach them and say, “Can we put some Mental Floss trivia on the side of your milk cartons?’” It’s only a matter of time, probably, before Condensed Knowledge and Mental Floss trivia also surface on subways and buses.
Pearson and Maloney credit the success of both the magazine and the book to the original motto: that of successfully “blurring the lines between education and entertainment.” Yes, people want to learn, but given the rapid, quick-fix information society in which we live, what better than a condensed (pardon the pun), witty version of everything-you’ll-ever-need-to-know. This is the perfect resource for the generation on the go; the hip, happening professionals who own broadband internet service, wish they had actually finished their grad school theses, and like to engage in sparkling cocktail party conversation. (Pearson places the core readership in the mid-to-late 30s age range.)
According to Pearson, “An educated mind is a respected mind and something that everybody wants to have. We decided that this craving for knowledge was strong enough that a magazine belonged that could blur the lines between education and entertainment.”
The book jacket is cleverly designed as a soup can, boasting a photo of Einstein and a “Nutrition facts” table which lists “Total facts: 352 pages,” and “Bad Humor: 88 pages,” and an “Ingredients” section detailing the contents: “four civilizations nobody remembers; five classics written under the influence; two religious mysteries solved by chemistry…” and so on.
More impressive is the roster of contributing authors, all of whom are recognized experts in their field and many of whom currently teach their subjects at universities. Kenneth Silber, a contributing columnist of Mental Floss who co-wrote the “Economics” chapter of Condensed Knowledge with economist Alexei Bayer, explains how he first spotted the magazine at a local Barnes and Noble, and was intrigued by its title: “I immediately wanted to write for it.” As an established writer who writes for a number of national publications, Silber was interested in the possibility of writing about offbeat topics. He explains, “It’s the kind of magazine that strikes a nerve because people have an intellectual curiosity, and a lot of what they are offered in other publications doesn’t really satisfy that curiosity.”
Given the average lifespan of the average magazine, however (which have an unfortunate knack for folding after a few years), is the very reason that Pearson, Hattikudur and Co. also set their sights on books and other ventures. HarperCollins has been so pleased with the reception of the book, that the publisher has agreed to future installments of Condensed Knowledge. In addition, a board game is scheduled for release next year, and possible TV opportunities are also being bounced around, further empowering the rising media empire. The magazine currently enjoys 25,000 subscribers (60,000 including newsstand sales), and their website brings in a whopping 3 million hits.
Maloney, who comes from a journalism background and is a self-professed media junkie, left corporate life to become involved full-time with the Mental Floss enterprise in 2002. He describes the importance of the future book editions as “a very powerful way of building the brand,” and explains that the goal is to “keep true to the spirit of the brand.”
Condensed Knowledge offers 15 chapters on a variety of subjects, which are all written in a sharp, hysterically funny, and informative tone. (It’s difficult to imagine that these were all written by a slew of different authors, since the style and tone remain constant in every chapter, and in this instance, credit should go to the editors for cleverly maintaining a consistent voice.) The Popular Culture chapter is one of the best (though this reviewer may be biased in this regard), and even readers who find the sciences dull, can’t possibly resist the section on the benefits of chocolate under “Chemistry,” or the chapter on “Swashbuckling Physicists.”
According to the wonder boys of the Mental Floss enterprise, there’s lots more on the way, and readers who become addicted to the factoids in this edition of Condensed Knowledge can expect future books which will also provide them with years of guaranteed witty repartee. In the meantime, though, the message is clear: Ladies and gentlemen, keep flossing.