The Titans Of Trivia

Unlike most artists, Rembrandt was known by his first name. His full name was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn--Mental Floss, volume two.

To the contemporary mind, adrift in the sea of random data unleashed by the Internet, that's the kind of fact you want from a magazine--the kind that snaps you awake in the middle of a plane ride with its staggering insignificance, the kind that by its total absence of context is guaranteed to stay lodged forever in your brain, impressing future dates, at least the ones who've never heard of Raphael or Michelangelo. It's the kind of fact on which four Duke University graduates decided in the summer of 2001 to found their fortune, in the form of a magazine whose slogan, "Feel smart again," preys on the all-too-common fear that someone, someday, is going to ask you to name the six wives of Henry VIII, or why it hurts to bite down on a piece of aluminum foil. "It was basically a bunch of kids sitting around watching 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'," says Mental Floss publisher Will Pearson. "We were looking for a magazine that would let us continue our liberal-arts education in installments, and when we didn't find it we started one ourselves." It is, he boasts, "the first magazine to blur the lines between education and entertainment."

And what Tina Brown and her heavyweight backers couldn't pull off with Talk, Pearson and his young colleagues have already done: make a small profit after only two years of regular publication. They did this by relying on word of mouth and a Web site to build a paid circulation (unaudited) of about 60,000; roughly two thirds are newsstand sales, at $4.95 a copy. Spinoffs, including a weekly segment on CNN Headline News, have helped extend the brand, and next month their first book is due to appear: "Condensed Knowledge," edited by Pearson, Mangesh Hattikudur and Elizabeth Hunt and published by HarperCollins. It contains more than 300 pages of neatly, if arbitrarily, organized facts, such as "3 Countries That Don't Take American Express" (Burma, Bhutan and North Korea) and "4 Prima Ballerinas You Need to Know" (Marie Taglioni, Anna Pavlova, Margot Fonteyn and Maria Tallchief). This is all guaranteed brand-new trivia, not an anthology. The market for miscellaneous facts--as the manufacturers of Trivial Pursuit, the producers of quiz shows and the publishers of books such as last year's best seller "Schott's Original Miscellany" know--is unique in the sphere of economics: both supply and demand are endless.

Mental Floss's design inspiration was to make Albert Einstein into a visual mascot who appears somewhere on every cover, like the thinking man's Alfred E. Neuman. The organizing principles range from the merely idiosyncratic to the puerile, linking a page of information on ancient Greece, for example, with facts about the movie "Grease" and fried foods. Readers who can remember looking up something in a good encyclopedia might consider this less "Mental Floss" than "Brain Licorice"-- and the nit-pickiest trivia buffs might object to a factoid or two. But they'll wow their dates with it anyway.