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So you think you know everything

Two books delve into deep knowledge -- and trivial esoterica

By Todd Leopold


(CNN) -- Comedian Steven Wright has a comedy routine: "I got up one morning and couldn't find my socks, so I called Information," he begins.

"She said, 'Hello, Information.' I said, 'I can't find my socks.' She said, 'They're behind the couch.' " Sure enough, Wright reports, they were.

If only things were that easy. Even in a Google-infested world, dependable answers can be hard to come by.

Fortunately, two new books offer heaping platters of good -- and fascinating -- information.

"The Explainer" (Anchor), edited by Slate associate editor Bryan Curtis, collects more than 170 entries of the popular column, which usually answers questions of a newsworthy bent. "Mental Floss Presents: Condensed Knowledge" (HarperCollins), edited by Mental Floss magazine founders Will Pearson, Mangesh Hattikudur and Elizabeth Hunt, is more of a generalist's reference, with tidbits of history, literature, the arts, geography, science and simple common sense presented in short lists.

But still: In the Information Age, do we really need more of this stuff?

Absolutely, say the books' editors.

Too often when writing news articles or analyses, journalists don't take time to explain what seems so obvious to them, Curtis notes. "The Explainer's" questions, he says, come from the "tremendous amount of mail" readers send the online magazine -- easily hundreds of missives for a particularly hot-button event, he adds. The point of "The Explainer" is to say, Wait a minute; what's that again?

Similarly, Mental Floss magazine came about because Pearson and his Duke University friends found that there wasn't a publication for their endlessly curious minds, "a sort of bible for trivia addicts," as Pearson writes in "Condensed Knowledge's" introduction. So they created one themselves. Others must be equally fascinated: The publication now has a circulation over 60,000.

"Condensed Knowledge" continues that initiative, he says. Drawing inspiration from "The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy," "I thought it would be fun to have a book like this, but a little quirkier," Pearson says. "We wanted it to be more fun. You could flip to any page and have an interesting tidbit, much like the magazine."

Ovaltine and recalled meat

"Condensed Knowledge" tapped into the wisdom of several experts, each knowledgeable about a specific area, such as art history, philosophy or pop culture. By contrast, a great deal of "The Explainer" is the work of one man, the brainy Brendan I. Koerner, who often writes the column on the Web.

"Brendan is a great polymath and a great writer," says Curtis. "He got the job because he has an incredibly agile mind. He can do a piece on Ovaltine, or a story on recalled meat."

Koerner, a Wired magazine contributing editor who's written for several other publications, is also very quick. Slate will send an idea to him early in the morning; by noon, he's written the column, and it's out on the site a couple hours later, says Curtis.

Among the questions Koerner -- or Slate's other writers -- have tackled:

  • Why does it cost so much to live in Gabon? (The African country's capital, Libreville -- the fourth most expensive city in the world -- has limited Western-style accommodations and luxuries, and Western citizens pay through the nose for them.)
  • Why does the Ku Klux Klan burn crosses? (It's based on a Scottish practice of the Middle Ages; the Klan idealized Scottish clans of that era.)
  • What, exactly, is Ovaltine? (Originally concocted as a Swiss nutritional supplement made of fortified malt extract, it became popular as a hot winter beverage and caught on in America thanks to radio advertising.)
  • Not every question can make a good Explainer. Religion questions, says Curtis, are "problematic."

    "You're wading into something that inspires strong opinions, [though] there is a mountain of scholarship available -- good and crank scholarship," he says. "Whatever you write, you'll be pelted."

    Entertaining experts


    For Mental Floss, the challenge was to find experts who could do a whole chapter on their subject -- and make it as entertaining as it is informative.

    "We wanted them to be free to have ideas of their own," he says. "Then it was fun for them. They got into it."

    It's also fun to go through, he adds (if he may say so himself). "When I describe the book, it's about finding facts you can use in almost any situation," he says, from technoslang (an "Aunt Tillie" is "the quintessential naive computer user") to foods that can have deleterious effects (don't eat too much raw cassava -- the cyanide it contains can cause paralysis).

    "There's so much in there. ... I'm thrilled to see the final product," Pearson says.

    And yes, both editors agree, there's a growing market for this stuff. "The Explainer" is one of Slate's most popular columns, says Curtis; and Mental Floss, besides its gains in circulation, is about to branch out into board games and, eventually, a game show, says Pearson. (The magazine also has a regular segment on CNN Headline News.)

    But do both publications a favor. Don't call it trivia.

    "Mental Floss is what it is," says Pearson. "It's about people learning information they always thought they should know."

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