Reviewed by Steven H Silver
I’ve been a big fan of the magazine Mental_Floss for quite some time, so when they announced their first book, Condensed Knowledge, I began looking forward to reading through the book. In stores now, Condensed Knowledge contains 327 pages of informative blurbs divided into 15 topical chapters ranging from Art History through Religion.
Each of the chapters has been compiled by a different expert in that field who is able to adopt and adapt Mental_Floss’s breezy and brief style to provide interesting facts and anecdotes about their area of expertise. The book, like the magazine, values short and pithy discussion of topics that provide a lot of information quickly. Fortunately, the authors have included enough background in each of their pieces that the reader can come to the information without having prior knowledge of the topic.
Taking the style, if not the format, of the magazine (fewer illustrations), Condensed Knowledge almost comes across as an updated version of The Book of Lists. Each of the areas covered in the 15 chapters have a headline that begins with a number, such as “7 Comic Books Worth Stealing from Grandma’s Attic” or “3 African Rulers Who Built Formidable (If Now Forgotten) Nations.” As is indicated by those headlines, the book is not looking at any of these topics with a serious bent.
The lists are all informative and written with a sense of humor, frequently a biting sense of humor that raises the level of writing about the recitation of cold hard facts. Those cold hard facts can range from the radioactivity of alcoholic beverages to the number of possible chess games. However, because of the adroit writing, these facts are given a context and made to feel somewhat relevant to the world at large.
In addition to the short lists, the book collects a number of sidebars which present additional information. Although hardly more in depth than the rest of the entries, these sidebars are presented in a manner which sets them apart from the lists and gives them the feeling of more depth. When compared to list entries, the reader realizes just how much information each item, whether in a list or in a sidebar contains.Condensed Knowledge is most enjoyable when the reader dips into it at random for short periods, rather than reading it straight through. This has the added benefit of making the enjoyment of the book last longer. Even when the reader has encountered all the entries from “5 Scandals That Rocked Art” to 6 Texts That Didn’t Make It Into the Bible,” there is the pleasure of knowing that more condensed knowledge is available every other month in the magazine Mental_Floss.
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