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Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  9,184 ratings  ·  833 reviews
In Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, things are explained in the style of Up Goer Five, using only drawings and a vocabulary of the 1,000 (or "ten hundred") most common words. Explore computer buildings (datacenters), the flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates), the things you use to steer a plane (airliner cockpit controls), and the little bags of water ...more
Hardcover, 64 pages
Published November 24th 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Average rating 4.15  · 
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 ·  9,184 ratings  ·  833 reviews

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Aug 20, 2016 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: people who dislike language, writing and communication
We all have one, that person we'd prefer to get along with, but every time they open their mouth, so much stupid erupts that low-level irritation shifts into rage (there's a certain political figure that I react to every time).

That about sums up my experience with Thing Explainer.

Every time I picked it up intending to read a few 'cartoons' explaining concepts like helicopters, the cell, elevators or the auto engine, I'd end up either generally annoyed or quite specifically angry. Thing Explainer
Nov 15, 2020 rated it really liked it

This book explains 47 hard things using only “the ten hundred most used words” and simple pictures. My job is to explain hard things so they sound easy, so I used the Thing Explain word check to explain a thing that way:

Hands, face, space

There is lots of a new tiny bad thing in the air. It started in animals far away but got into people.

When it gets inside people, it makes many of them sick and some die. The sick people breathe hard, fast, with pain and noise, so the new tiny bad thing moves i
I loved the German translation so much that I had to buy the English edition too... and, of course, it was better. The book has such an excellent idea that I only really thought about that when I read it in German, but in the original you can see what a poet Munroe is, and poetry never really translates quite right. Here are some of my favorite passages:

This machine checks whether you have a piece of metal with a certain shape. If you do, it lets go of whatever it's holding on to. P
Rather perversely, given that I keep telling people I don't like translations, I read Randall Munroe's new book in German - but I thought it might help develop my language skills to go through this unusual piece of work, where the inventive Mr Munroe spends sixty-one A4 pages explaining a lot of complicated things using a vocabulary of only the one thousand most common words. My feeling is that it's done me some good, despite the disapproving look I got from one of my germanophone colleagues. (" ...more
Jun 02, 2015 rated it did not like it
Randall Munroe's XKCD comic is a delight to read, "What If" was fabulous, so I was expecting something even more from "Thing Explainer". Extremely disappointed. By utilizing only the 1,000 most common words to write this book Munroe created a confusing mess.

The simplistic language created a moment or two of cheeky comedy, but for the most part it was a confusing (in the most annoying sense of the term) way to have complex ideas explained.

Just call it "Mitochondria" and then talk about how it's
Riku Sayuj
One can see how this would easily be a fun exercise, trying to explain some complicated “things” using only the limited set of the “ten hundred” or so most commonly used words in the language. This, along with the xkcd-honed drawing skills, can convert what would otherwise have been quite a nondescript mini-encyclopedia into a quaint and publishable book. Munroe’s cult following, wit, and knack for packaging a book beautifully, makes it a bestseller (?).

But as far as reading it is concerned, th
Dec 30, 2015 rated it it was ok
First off, explaining complex things like the ISS (that's that big thing in the sky, not the men with beards who want to kill you), nuclear reactors, etc using only the most popular 1,000 words in English is one helluva feat, and Randall needs to be lauded for doing that.


The novelty wears off pretty quickly; it is after all possible to dumb down science too much. The other problem is one of semantics. As I said, it's a great job explaining everything using only a vocabulary of 1,000 words
Jan 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
I have been a long time fan of xkcd, a delightfully nerdy and funny webcomic that has a wonderful mix of science, humor, and the occasional pun. If you like science and humor and aren't reading xkcd you need to zip on over there stat.

When I heard that Munroe, the artist/writer of xkcd, announced he was going to put out a book explaining things using his simple, yet elegant art style, I was excited. Here was a person who knew science, had a passion for educating the masses about it, and had a sub
K.T. Katzmann
Mar 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: People who want to be told how things work
Recommended to K.T. by: Person who makes funning drawing on a computer
 photo thatsthejoke_zpssbaiqlv7.jpg

I am alternately astounded and unsurprised by my fellow Goodreads reviewers.

This is a book where the title on the front is labeled "Big Words That Tell You What This Book Is." The inside dust jacket informs you that it uses only the thousand most common words, and even gives you examples like:

* food-heating radio boxes (microwaves)
* the big flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates)
* the bags of stuff inside you (human organs)

. . . and yet reviews complain about this exact premise. I mean, the
This book: read it.

Randall Munroe never ever fails to make me laugh. Having been indoctrinated to "internet humor" at a very young age (okay, so like, my late teens) with xkcd, I was entirely thrilled to learn about What If? being released some nine years after that, and that's still one of the funniest books I've ever read. I wrote a long-form book review about it for my library's newsletter. It's really that good.

Thing Explainer is just as good (I hesitate to use the word "better" for two reas
Nick Pageant
Jan 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
Thanks to Giulio for this wonderful Christmas gift. It's been great fun to read and I think I understand some rather complicated things that I had no clue about before. Great coffee table book.

(Still pondering whether or not my G. thinks I'm stupid.)
Jan 12, 2016 rated it it was ok
Disappointed. "Complicated stuff in simple words" is right. I actually wanted to learn something from this book, but when nothing is given its proper name it gets super confusing. For instance sky boat with turning wings is a helicopter. The parts are labeled as such: land feet, radio stick, spin changer, pointing wings, end blower, etc etc. Funny, yes. For the first 3 pages. If you are not an engineer and want to grasp the basics with proper nomenclature look elsewhere.
Aug 14, 2015 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book! (Thanks Kathy!) I will fully admit that I wished for the real names of things to be used, and then explained in simple words, but I still got a kick out of this book.

I love Munroe's take on the "Explain Like I'm 5" challenge. I now know things, though I'm not sure that it would help me much, for instance, to tell the doctor that my food bag is upset and grumbling. He might refer me to another kind of doctor, one who would make me look at sneeze images made from many
Emma Sea
Awesome, of course.

My star sign is "water animal with hand cutters"
And I've always wanted a pet "skin bird."
Jesse Richards
Dec 12, 2015 rated it it was ok
Beautiful helpful diagrams constrained by a contrived vocabulary limit.
Fred Forbes
Dec 31, 2015 rated it it was ok
Strolling through a book store I spotted this and was intrigued by the the interesting diagrams, topics examined and premise of "complicated stuff in simple words". To my surprise it ended up on the best seller list with the appropriate discount so I snatched it up with an Xmas gift card. Wish I had paid attention to the "simple words" part since I should have looked a bit more closely. Turns out the words are, IMHO, too simple. They are drawn from the list of the thousand (sorry "ten hundred" i ...more
Heidi The Reader
Mar 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, humor
Munroe is inspirational for educators who struggle to make complex concepts accessible. I've run into this problem when trying to create fliers to describe, simply and succinctly, the process that you use to check out ebooks from the library. It feels like an impossible task. Munroe shows in this clever book, that anything is possible. From Lifting Rooms (elevators) to Our Star (the sun), Munroe takes it all apart and explains the processes with only ten hundred (1000!) of the most commonly used ...more
Kiri Fiona
May 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
5 Stars…

Worth it even just for the credit given on the Acknowledgements page:

A lot of people helped me with this book. Their names
aren’t words that people use a lot, but I’m going to
write them anyway because they’re important.
And, most of all, Strong Pretty Ring-Wearer


What I loved:
It was funny! Even if you couldn't learn anything from it, I think it's worth reading just to see how much more fun and approachable the English language is if we don't gussy it up too much.

The ten hundred words list. I
Maciej Nowicki
Dec 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Thing Explainer is a book about how things work but only using the most common words in the English language. Randall Munroe, the author of the book, intentionally use simplified words to give equivalents or to explain, which is here and there a bit confusing. The idea is that if you truly understand something you can break it down into simple words enough for anyone to understand.

Thing explainer is also written with a sarcastic sense of humour and it includes some lighter comics, as well as, wi
Conor Ahern
Jun 30, 2018 rated it liked it
This book by the author of the comic xkcd is kind of stunning. It's amazing the amount of understanding he distilled into informative and approachable drawings. I got tired of the 1,000-word schtick (the author only uses the 1,000 most common words in the English language, so e.g. helicopters are called "sky boats with turning wings"), though it's admittedly impressive.

This would be a great book for a grade school STEM student, a nerd with a coffee table, or someone who just really likes to rea
May 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Truly unique
John Devlin
Jan 04, 2020 rated it did not like it
Not sure why Bill Gates would recommend this book. It’s silly and ultra basic.
Sure it’s trying to be kind of cute with its humor but it’s a waste of time.
Alfred Haplo
This is a super-fun book to read. The Thing Explainer explains Things by using up to 1100 common words only. Forty-seven Things are described in easy, simple words. With easy, simple pictures. In 61 legal-sized pages. These Things range from objects mechanical to biological to geographical to electrical to chemical to medical to astronomical. And many other Things in between.

I think I learnt a lot reading about Things. But I don’t seem to remember much. Especially after I closed the book. And s
Dec 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Randall Munroe's (of xkcd and what if? fame) latest attempt is to explain things using only the most common 1000 words. This is a crazy, crazy read. I had to do two completely opposite things here: 1) be thorough in the subject matter, and 2) be able to unlearn everything about the subject. It's a little disorienting at first and I was feeling my way across, almost like reading a foreign language I was just starting to grasp. I actually took some time, in most cases more than one reading of the ...more
I have to be honest - I didn't read every word in this beautiful book. I pored over the amazingly detailed illustrations, skimmed over some (too much) of the text, and chuckled over the snarky comic asides, while wishing that Munroe had maybe used some of the real, technical words to define things, then explained them in his simplified terms. His simplified terms and definitions were frequently hilarious, but they were also much more confusing. For example, the spread on bridges (or "tall roads" ...more
Feb 01, 2016 rated it did not like it
The premise of this book is to explain complicated things using only the most common 1000 words (ten hundred words). A pencil becomes a 'writing stick' and a camera a 'picture taker.' So, you might understand in very basic terms how something like the International Space Station works (not really) but you won't have the appropriate language to refer to anything about it. I find this incredibly frustrating and a waste of time. If you like knowing how something works but not being able to talk abo ...more
Ok don't tell my kids, but this is one I actually did buy. Munroe is the creator of xkcd, and his book What If... has been read to ribbons in my house. How does Thing Explainer differ from those other projects? I'll explain and I'll use small words so that you'll be sure to understand, you warthog-faced buffoon. That's right - in this book, Munroe has limited himself to using only the 1000 most common words in the English language. This explains the lilting, rather Boovish syntax of the captions ...more
Nov 27, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This is brilliant: take big complicated things and explain them using small, simple words (and some really excellent diagrams.) And since it's by the creator of xkcd, there's a lot of nerdery, deadpan humor, and cleverness.

Sure, it was fun and entertaining - but I also legitimately learned a lot, as well.
Kaethe Douglas
Sep 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words - Randall Munroe   I had two hours reads going today, The Thin Man and Real World by Natsuo Kirino for the Terrifying Women square, and I got to feeling a tad oppressed by the dark and the existential dread. It was bad: I had two hours to kill by myself in Target and I walked out with nothing, because there was just no point. So the two options for lightening my mood that were to hand were Amphigories or Randall Monroe. It was a good choice. Now ...more
Dec 25, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: purchased
This is the second book by Randell Munroe of XKCD fame, and like its predecessor What if?, this too started as entries from his blog on his website.

The premise of the book is that the author tries to explain complicated stuff using the 1000 most commonly used words in the English vocabulary, which means he has to do away with all technical jargon and have a real ELI5 (Explain Like I am 5) approach to describing and explaining the inner workings of things, which ranges from how weather works, t
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Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist, is the creator of the webcomic xkcd and the author of xkcd: volume 0. The International Astronomical Union recently named an asteroid after him; asteroid 4942 Munroe is big enough to cause a mass extinction if it ever hits a planet like Earth. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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