I received the most recent issue of this today, and was so engrossed that I could almost ignore the children that habitually run around in my library. I can't think of any other magazine that has been able to do that (not since my "Ranger Rick" days), so it definitely deserves a review.
The website gives you a good birds-eye view of the magazine's style. Simply put, Mental Floss is an assortment of interesting trivia and information for the aspiring intellectual, served in bite-sized pieces. Many articles consist of several paragraphs on loosely connected topics, so no individual piece of information takes more than about thirty seconds to absorb. For example, the November 2006 issue features an article entitled "Governments Fund the Darndest Things: 7 of the Largest, Oddest, and Most Useless State Projects in the World." Each of the seven projects is given a paragraph or two, and the article is crammed full of sidebars, useful pictures and diagrams, and enough information to choke an elephant.
The best part is, the article (like all the articles in the magazine) is written with the assumption that a) you're not an idiot, and b) there is something interesting about everything. And they're right. Unlike most media which aims for a fourth-grade reading level, mental_floss has no problem assuming you have a basic knowledge of particle accelerators, Alfred Hitchcock, and simple chemistry. I don't claim to be an expert on any of these things, and I haven't studied them more than anyone else, but I felt the articles were aimed for my demographic - people who are bright, interested in a number of fields, and willing to find the interesting bits in almost anything.
I can confidently say that I learn a lot from this magazine. Some of the articles are more fascinating than others, but even the seemingly mundane ones contain gems. (Did you know that even though marijuana is illegal in Jamaica, it still is the country's largest-grossing export?) And it definitely has several with broad appeal - who wouldn't want to know how Gary Larson ended up writing The Far Side?
I really love how Mental Floss doesn't try to teach you everything about everything - but you'll know enough to make a fool of that boor who always takes over the conversation at cocktail parties. While some of the articles are narrative in nature, they all explore multiple facets of their subject. The recent article about Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, for instance, doesn't give you a simple thesis. Instead, it meanders through Alfred Hitchcock's filmmaking career, how the studios tried to get him to cancel the film, how he marketed it, how and why it became a success, and what effect it had on the movie business. I wouldn't have read a long discussion of Alfred Hitchcock's filmmaking philosophy - but I loved this article.
$22 for a year's subscription is definitely within my "gift" budget. I wish the magazine were monthly instead of bimonthly (so that $22 comes out to just over $4 per issue), but each issue takes me a couple of hours to read, and it's not crammed full of ads like many magazines are. (The ads that do appear tend to be for MENSA and geeky t-shirts, which I don't mind in the least.)
Every time I read a new issue of this magazine, I end up spouting off bits of trivia for weeks. (Did you know there was an issue of Gilligan's Island where the Harlem Globetrotters ended up on the island and had to face off against an evil robotic basketball team?) You'll come across facts that are so darn interesting you'll want to share them with anyone who will sit still long enough. If you have similarly intellectual friends and family, they'll probably enjoy it.