Feeling Smart


Five recently graduated seniors are going for the big-time magazine market by publishing Mental Floss, a slick, nationally distributed magazine that’s meant, they say, “to make you feel smart again.”

The cover of the first issue, published in April, shows a famous photograph of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue. Mental Floss, its creators say, is designed not only to be smart but to be fun. The cover lines hint at the magazine’s eclectic interests, wide range, and tongue-in-cheek tone: “What’s so Great about Alexander?”; “The arrow of human evolution: Are we headed for world peace?”; “Stock market crash course: five keys to financial planning.” The issue features “an undercover history” of sex, along with stories on human-rights abuses in Guatemala and three fighters for social justice in the U.S. It delves into the Dead Sea Scrolls, Pablo Picasso, dark matter in the universe, and highlights from the tradition of jazz.

Launching a magazine:MENTAL FLOSS co-editors Pearson, left, and Hattikudur created "today's cheatsheet for a complete education".

Mental Floss is today’s cheat sheet for a complete education,” says William E. Pearson, a history major who is editor-in-chief. Pearson was the major shaper of the magazine when it kicked off—in a scaled-down version—as a campus publication last year. “We’re acknowledging two characteristics of American society,” he says. “One, people want to consider themselves well educated. Two, they want the educational process to be quick and simple.”
Executive editor Mangesh Hattikudur, a cultural anthropology major, has roots reaching back to India, and in his first column he reminisces about the work of Indian writer Salman Rushdie. As a child, Hattikudur writes, his mother read to him from Rushdie’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories. He compares Mental Floss to Rushdie’s “ocean of knowledge—thick and rich and full of life.”

Mental Floss, he says, got its start when Pearson told him he’d been keeping various lists of trivia facts since he was in the sixth grade and thought he should turn them into a book. Hattikudur suggested, “Maybe we could do it as a magazine instead of a book, and do it for the rest of our lives.” After that, the two students found themselves sitting up at night, talking about history and philosophy. When they couldn’t find a magazine like the one they had in mind, Hattikudur says, they figured they had a product.

All five of Mental Floss’ creators met as freshmen. Planning for the magazine took off during their junior year. Three of them were studying abroad—Hattikudur in Tibet; Milena Viljoen, assistant art director, in Kenya; and editor-at-large John Cascarano in Italy—so they relied on e-mail to communicate. (Aside from Pearson, the other founder is art director Lisako Koga.) “This would not have been possible without the Internet,” Pearson says.

That’s how they found already-published writers for their first issue, he says. They sent out e-mail messages to them, asking if the writers of books like Jazz for Dummies, An Underground Education, The Blood of Guatemala, Great Artists, and The Astronomy Café would work for the magazine—for free. The students have signed agreements to trade information with HowStuffWorks.com and UselessKnowledge.com. Both websites host more than a million visitors a month, Pearson says.

The five creators have expanded their magazine to sixty-four pages. They’ve received advice from Duke administrators and from Samir Husni, a University of Mississippi journalism professor who wrote a guidebook called Launch Your Own Magazine. Using a national distributor, they are planning to get it on the racks at bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. Now, they’re searching for investors to give it a financial foundation.

This coming year, the five graduates expect to continue working on Mental Floss. “We feel like we did what we set out to do,” Pearson says. “I think what we learned is how much goes into a magazine.”

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