I was reminded of one of the joys of this job one afternoon last week. The sun was sinking over the West Side of Manhattan when I sat down to read the essays that make up the Special Report on "What You Need to Know" in this issue. I found myself, as I hope you will be, absorbed in David Gates's analysis of the enduring appeal of Jane Austen (she still outsells Ann Coulter and Alice Walker). Minutes later, Sharon Begley was taking me on a tour of the intricacies and unfolding mysteries of the brain. Fareed Zakaria soon challenged my thinking with his essay on Islamic radicalism. Then Howard Fineman shook up the conventional wisdom about which states will really matter in the 2008 race, and Bob Samuelson convinced me that the worst thing that could happen to the economy would be if we started strenuously building our savings.
Provocative, witty, counterintuitive and, above all, deeply reported and illuminating: this week's project has led me to break my usual rule against using flattering adjectives about the magazine in this space. (The rule is rooted in the conviction that you would hardly expect the editor to say a piece was "mediocre" rather than "fascinating," or "derivative" rather than "original.")
This issue features the first installment of what will be a recurring series on Global Literacy—the idea that there are things we ought to know in order to negotiate and understand the world. Our list is eclectic; I think it is all the better for that. If you are wondering how we arrived at the "181" figure on the cover, you should know that Mark Miller, an assistant managing editor who helped direct the project, combed through the package and decided to count each essay question as a single thing, and then discrete facts in graphics, quizzes, glossaries, charts and maps. The count itself was, you should know, rather subjective, but hey, it's summer.
The project was a magazine-wide effort led by Nisid Hajari, Dan Revitte, Bret Begun, David Jefferson, David Noonan, Julia Baird, Nancy Cooper and Marc Peyser; Bruce Ramsay designed our exuberant cover. NEWSWEEK.com is home to the 130-question quiz on global literacy, and please write to us at the site with your own thoughts about what Americans should know now.
We expect a spirited debate. There can never be a single list of essential facts or ideas, but the impossibility of the task does not mean the exercise is without value. Too few of us know the basic geography of the nations in which our troops are fighting. Too few can tell you what distinguishes a Sunni from a Shiite. Too few can, with confidence, explain, in the words of country star Alan Jackson, "the difference between Iraq and Iran"—except that we are at war in one, which has no weapons of mass destruction, and not with the other, which does.
"You can't love something you don't know any more than you can love someone you don't know," the historian David McCullough told me recently. But you can hate that which you don't know—and are in fact all the more likely to do just that. The more we know, it seems safe to say, the better, for the old cliché is a cliché because it is true: knowledge is power. It is also fun.
This is our double summer issue; we will see you every day on NEWSWEEK.com, and back here in the pages of the magazine on Monday, July 9. Until then, good luck on the quiz. I certainly needed it.