Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mental Floss

Mental Floss Magazine
Published bimonthly, 6 issues per year, $21.97 (U.S.)
Digital subscriptions are available

A good magazine should follow the rule to leave the reader smarter. That is what Mental Floss Magazine does under the tagline, “Feel smart again.” Can one return to smartness? Nah. Smart people enjoy smart reading, and Mental Floss simply enhances smartness and gives us stuff to talk about with other smart people. If one knows no smart people, there are plenty of ads for MENSA in every issue.

I found this magazine several years ago on my news stand racks, and I have been hooked ever since. A usual assignment in my writing classes is to have students each take a magazine—think New Yorker, Atlantic, and Harper’s, not People—and do a presentation on the publication for the class, detailing subscription rates, content, number of ads, history, submission policies, and include a sample article or feature.

The first time out, the results were predictable: the boys did car and sports magazines (Playboy was off-limits at the private school), and the girls tortured the males right back with a parade of Vogue, Seventeen, and every fashion magazine in the western world. I was left longing for something that was not cliché.

The next time I assigned the project, I pushed the students’ boundaries by politely requiring them to cover certain less well-known and accessible markets. I was able to direct them to these magazines and the trick worked. Great presentations led to long-term readers.

Mental Floss was a particular favorite. The magazine includes a feature story that, as the website notes, never fails to deliver. Tongue-in-cheek samples include “whether a pregnant woman can drive in the carpool lane, and how much wood a woodchuck can actually chuck.”

The most current issue, (Sept.-Oct. 2010) includes a cover story entitled “Real Americans: 13 Heroes, Villains, and Legends Who Defined the American Spirit.” If one ever wanted to know what Blackbeard the pirate was like, or dip into the history of the woman who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, then this is the issue to read.

But as they say in those annoying commercials for really sharp knives and ultimate cleaning cloths on television, “wait, there’s more!” There are sections for Right Brain, Left Brain, and the ever-popular category, Scattered Brain. This issue includes articles on the well-known musical, Cabaret and its history, small books that made a difference, the origin of decaf coffee, and a number of short pieces on the Beatles.

Each issue also comes complete with some nifty other features, like “Spinning The Globe,” an article about a particular place in the world, a pop quiz, little known facts on “The Lists,” and a rather amazing connect-the-dots piece called “6° Of Ken Jennings,” where the noted Jeopardy kingpin attempts, always successfully, to link up two disparate terms or ideas within six moves. He works on chai tea and tai chi in this issue.

I particularly like a feature that runs along the bottom of most pages called “The Bottom Line,” featuring trivia and facts regarding the stories and people on the pages. Television should have such devices, sort of like the old “Pop-Up Videos” on MTV and VH1, only for magazine readers.

Mental Floss is perfect for young people, even though it is not fashion-conscious or about online gaming. My students become addicted to the magazine every other month after the class presentations are finished. They enjoy challenging each other with the facts and trivia they learn, and the magazine offers them mental stimulation without the kids being aware that their brains are being stretched.

For adults, the magazine offers enough material to enlighten the mind without making the reader feel stupid or out of touch. It is a publication that improves the mind rather than talking down to its readers.

I remember a line from the film, The Big Chill, where one of the characters, a writer for People Magazine, talks about how he cannot write an article longer than what someone could read in an average trip to the bathroom. Mental Floss has short articles aimed at the brain. Feel free to take it into the bathroom or anywhere else. Even if one is not a candidate for MENSA, we can all share in the glory of a little stimulating reading.

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