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Book Review: Condensed Knowledge by the editors at mental_floss


Authors: Mental_floss
Genre: Non-fiction, encyclopedia, reference
Pub. Date: April 2004
Format: Paperback, 352pp
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

I like trivia. When I was a kid, I used to get the magazine 321 Contact (formerly The Electric Company) and would always turn to the �factoids� page before reading any other portion. The little paragraphs of strange and unusual information were fascinating. Why the life cycle of fruit flies, the number of cells in a body, or wingspan of the albatross would interest me I have no idea. Nonetheless, they do.

When my wife pointed me to Mental_floss magazine (herself pointed there by a fellow teacher) it was a godsend. No adult magazines had made trivia fun like 321 Contact had done. But the magazine is limited, and comes only bimonthly. I needed my �knowledge fix�, but didn�t want to wait quite so long.

Enter Condensed Knowledge by the editors at Mental_floss. This reference book covers topics like history, philosophy, religion, pop culture, and literature all in short paragraphs grouped into related sections. There might be a section on four different physicists, or 3 countries that don�t exist. A reader might find short descriptions on five books every one should know, or 9 ways you need radioactivity. Such topical groupings and short, interesting paragraphs make this resource readable from beginning to end.

In fact, what Ambrose Bierce did for dictionaries, Mental_floss has done for encyclopedias. Smart, funny, relevant, and interesting each section will help �knowledge junkies get their fix� between their issues of Mental_floss.

The book is flawed in some ways. Sometimes the sections seem to be unrelated to the main topic (i.e. literature) and are sometimes not really related in the way the subsection purports them to be. This, however, is uncommon and most likely the writers fault. Each main section is written by an expert in the field so at times a layperson might not get the relatedness of the topic to the main section, whereas an expert might.

Some of the writing is stilted, or biased. Mental_floss trends liberal in its take on events and history follows that trend. The book makes a fair effort at being witty and balanced, allowing no ridiculous belief or strange philosophy to go without a pun or clever remark. But in this is its real strength. Nothing that passes through the book goes unscathed.

Teachers should have this book in their libraries. Use it well to teach the arts, history, philosophy, etc. It will make it fun and easy to interject interesting stories into dry textbooks and show how some of our greatest minds had some of the weirdest behaviors. This book is a valuable mine of information that any teacher afraid of garnering interest on a topic in class is likely to find a paragraph eminently suited to capturing that interest. Difficult concepts are expressed in layman�s terms.

This can lead to oversimplification, but the editors of the book acknowledge this and dismiss it as not relevant to the work at hand. They were not trying to write anything comprehensive, but to fill that need some humans have of knowing a little about a lot.

This book is enjoyable and fascinating. Full of fun facts, strange trivia, and funny remarks, I highly recommend it for any lover of trivia and anyone who enjoys a good factoid.

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