My brother’s been reading mental_floss and its associated books for several years. Condensed Knowledge is, to the extent of my knowledge, the first of their [adjective] Knowledge compendia, essentially giant books of trivia. After having my appetite whetted by A.J. Jacobs (who, though is a contributor to mental_floss, does not have any material in this particular book), I decided to try my hand at one of these.
To be honest, Condensed Knowledge is a little hit-or-miss. Personally, I can’t quite figure out of it’s supposed to be a “Knowledge for Dummies” kind of book, or a “Bet You Didn’t Know…” kind of book. It’s organized into sections based on topic; e.g. “Condensed Religion,” “Condensed Geography,” “Condensed Art.” Each section contains a bunch of 1 or 2-page articles with a variable number of trivia. For example, “5 Famous Sculptors” or “7 Ancient Civilizations You Never Knew About.” Each subitem gets a little blurb.
Perhaps it’s just my own variable knowledge that made the book seem inconsistent. When I’m being told, somewhat condescendingly, about famous painters, I think to myself, “Why am I reading this again?” But when the books veers into the esoteric, like little-known painful rituals in history, it becomes genuinely interesting. Even within a section (each section being written by a different author or co-authors), there is remarkable inconsistency: religion, for instance, goes from the stupidly simple to the genuinely interesting.
Then, too, some of the authors seem to have a better grasp of neutrality than others. The author responsible for the philosophy section, for instance, really hates Jean-Paul Sartre, and made those feelings known on at least two separate occasions.
Remember, too, that the purposed of Condensed Knowledge is to tell you a little bit about a lot of things. There’s no in-depth analysis here; sometimes the author repeats a misconception or is so glib that they misrepresent their topic.
Despite its flaws, the book was a fun enough read. If nothing else, it should function similarly to Wikipedia: if you read a blurb that piques your knowledge, or that sounds suspicious, go research it. I know that happened with not a few topics in my case. In that respect, I suppose, the book has fulfilled its mission.