In every other situation, however, MF remains one of the most compulsively readable mags out there. Sure, it assumes a higher level of reader intellect and curiosity than any publication this side of Scientific American, but its nuggets are relayed in a humorous, conversational manner easily digested by idiot and idiot savant alike.
The current January/February issue celebrates products that aren't as mundane as they might appear: the Pez dispenser, the flashlight, and other inventions that MF staffers profess to love. Without giving anything away, the cover's claim that the paper clip has been "fighting Nazis since 1940" is amply supported by anecdotal evidence.
Better still are the mag's front-of-the-book, quick-hit blurbs. "Figures of Speech" veers mercifully away from William Safire territory to bring readers the stories of John Bartlett, Peter Mark Roget, and other, uh, word dudes. The "Blind as a Bat" sub-feature, on the other hand, reveals both that "Blinded By the Light" offers accurate advice about sun-gazing ("mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun") and that bats themselves enjoy making out, sort of.
You want graphics? MF recasts minutiae about Magellan's journeys in the form of a kids-mag maze. Then there's the letter from the editor, some kind of eye-puzzle deal that, frankly, I'm not smart enough to figure out. But it's good fun trying.
Finally, not that we're opposed to a thin glaze of commerce coating our editorial, but MF gets points for shying away from dropping brand names at every juncture. Even the guide to disposable products (credit card numbers, cell phones) avoids mention of a single big-name company. In today's world of magazines, that's the very definition of asceticism.
Is MF occasionally too clever for its own good? Probably. The bright-yellow highlighting of a few sentences in items about William Randolph Hearst/"Citizen Kane" and Monet practically screams, "Yoo hoo! Here are the two things that you should take away from these stories if you're too lazy to read the whole darn thing!" And the thescelosaurus-versus-thesaurus comparison, while cute, relies on a gimmick that has long since been co-opted by lesser mags (the whole let's-compare-two-things-alike-in-name-only thing).
But these are minor quibbles. Barring an unprecedented intellectual renaissance, mental_floss is never going to be appreciated by the masses, and that's fine. Here's hoping, however, that it will attract enough of a cult following to ensure its continued survival. It would be a serious bummer - and I mean that in the most highbrow sense of the phrase - to see it suffer the same plight of Spy or "Freaks and Geeks."