Mag review: Mental_Floss

May/June 2007, 72 pages, $4.99

Mental floss? I’d say more like mental fluff. This magazine is full of trivia, and while most of it is far from useless, the stuff nevertheless gets wadded into the back of your mind, only to be pulled out for special occasions. Flossing this is not.

mental_floss starts off poorly. “Scatterbrained Elvis,” as its first feature is called, has a great premise: take the names of song titles, add a little wordplay, and let wit take over from there. Yet the outcome is less than amusing. “All Shook Up” is not the pelvis-pumping rhythm we all know and love, but actually a fact sheet on earthquakes. “Love Me Tenderloin” discusses the history of meat, while “Jailhouse Rockers” is a Spin-like chart of celebrities, the time they spent in prison and, of course, their number of style points. A little fluffier than what I expected from a magazine that guarantees to make me “feel smart again.”

But turn the page, and you will be immediately assailed with the black-and-white image of a very angry-looking Ayn Rand. mental_floss goes on to write a three-page spread on the author of Atlas Shrugged and her theory of Objectivism, contrasting in appearance, style, and writing quality from the previous “scatterbrained” feature. The article gives just a taste of Rand’s life and works, but enough essential tidbits to satisfy a Randian curiosity. “It’s a novel! It’s a philosophy! It’s the instruction manual for a crazy cult!” mental_floss writer Greg Barnhisel says of Atlas Shrugged. “Then again, maybe it’s just about a little Russian girl who really hated growing up around Bolsheviks.”

The other articles in mental_floss follow a similar pattern as Barnhisel’s piece. The cover feature, “Big Ideas,” openly states its intention to be brief: “The World’s Headiest Concepts Shrunk Down to Size” it says of concepts that include deconstruction, evolution, and string theory. For prize-winning physicists, the creatively-illustrated and colorful two pages on string theory are probably close to useless. But for the rest of us, mental_floss does a good job of outlining its major points and controversies.

The same goes for the other seven topics, although at times the intentional contrast between modern, trendy language and deeply intellectual topics becomes tiresome. “Understanding Existentialism in Four Easy Steps,” one article claims. “Step #3: Get Hip to the Lingo” is the heading for a column whose only vocabulary is “dread,” “nausea,” and “absurd,” while the fourth step tells us only to “Break Out The Cigarettes and Black Turtlenecks! You’re Ready to be Existential!”

It solicits an occasional chuckle, but not all of mental_floss is so blatant. The piece on Sri Lanka is almost as long as the feature on “Big Ideas,” and in my opinion, should have claimed the front cover. Contributing editor Maggie Koerth-Baker begins with the facts, and moves on to pop culture, Sri Lankan terrorist organization The Tamil Tigers, and the ever-decreasing elephant-human ratio. It’s a well-rounded eight pages of fun facts and serious newswriting, and a good representation of what I had expected from mental_floss.

But more than its content, I was impressed with the layout. Everything about mental_floss appealed to me, visually–the color schemes, the font, the strategically-placed illustrations and text boxes. Unlike some magazines, whose pages are cluttered with mini-quizzes and “fun facts,” mental_floss keeps its articles aesthetically interesting without overloading on detail.

It’s hard to ignore the pop-mag vibe that mental_floss seems to emit once in awhile. Writers and graphic designers alike seem to be in their element when focusing on timeless topics like art and culture development; it’s when things become more pop-oriented that the magazine begins to lose its edge.