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Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words

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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 you're made of (cells).

64 pages, Hardcover

First published November 24, 2015

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About the author

Randall Munroe

21 books4,841 followers
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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Profile Image for carol..
1,516 reviews7,718 followers
August 21, 2016
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 fails on so many levels for me, it was shocking. I went into it hoping for the grown-up version of Charlie Brown's Super Book of Questions and Answers about All Kinds of Animals ... from Snails to People!: Based on the Charles M. Schulz Characters and instead found cartoon explanations of things I still don't understand, such as how all the parts of a car work together. I understand that it was supposed to be funny, but I was hoping for informative as well.

It wasn't.

Language is meant to communicate ideas. Generally, more complex ideas require more specific words to convey meaning. Remember when you last talked to a two or three year-old and everything with four legs was 'dog,' everything that flew was a 'bird' and every time someone cried they must be 'sad?' When we are just beginning to understand words represent things and concepts, simple language suffices, but as we grow in age and sophistication, we learn words can be more specific in representing object and idea. The more we grow in experiences and want to convey information with accuracy, the more we need that vocabulary.

But specificity does not have to be incomprehensible. For instance, in explaining what leukemia was to someone who was just diagnosed with it, I first had to teach about red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. I taught these common terms, so that we all understood what it would mean when the nurse says, "your red blood cells are low and you need a transfusion." To explain, I didn't have to use vocabulary like 'erythrocytes,' 'leukeocytes' and 'thrombocytes;' simple descriptions such as "white blood cells fight off infection" and analogies like "soldiers fighting against an enemy invader" explain without being incomprehensible. But the terms 'cells,' 'transfusion,' 'infection,' 'red,' and 'white' are non-negotiable in learning the concepts related to blood. You have to understand them to understand communication about body processes.

I tested Thing Explainer on something I know: Cells. Our body's cells are reduced to "Bags of Water." Inside the bags of water are other bags such as the 'bag filler,' the 'bags of death water,' 'bag shapers,' 'little builders,' and 'empty pockets.'

I found myself mentally trying to translate his terms into appropriate terminology: nuclei, mitochondria, lysosomes and Golgi apparatus, except I ended up irritated because endoplasmic reticulum and ribosomes sound alike with his description and I couldn't remember what Golgi bodies do. How is this even helpful? How does this help anyone understand the cell? DNA? Cancer? Genetics? It doesn't.

I tested it on something I didn't know: the automobile engine. "The Fire box computer watches how the fire box is working, and decides how much fire water to add to the air it sends in." Did this help? No. As he used the same words to explain its as to describe it, it's a useless explanation, like describing a circle as a 'round shape.'

There were occasional exceptions. The periodic table of elements was mildly amusing with descriptions like "green burning air that kills," "air in bright signs made from colored light," "the rock that makes up beaches, glass and computer brains," and at the end, "stuff that lasts for the time it takes you to close and open your eyes." However, for it to be funny, you have to know the table and elements off the top of your head. So, not so much for almost everyone.

It took me a lot of reflection to pinpoint the source of my rage: while Munroe disingenuously suggests that he is explaining 'complicated concepts in simple words,' he does so in such a way that the reader needs to understand the concept well to interpret his illustrations. This approach simultaneously insults the person who doesn't understand using the illusion of 'common words,' while creating an in-joke for people knowledgeable about those concepts.

The other reason it made me angry is my impression that like many people, Munroe is confusing 'complex' with 'incomprehensible' or 'pretentious.' He gives it away in the forward ("Page Before the Book Starts") when he says "I was really just worried that if I used the small words, someone might think I didn't know the big ones." A truly gifted person would be able to communicate with clarity instead of relying on circuitous explanations and false construction of word limits (he includes his personal emails in his source for the "1000 most common words"). Instead of actually communicating, what he did is replacement code sophisticated concepts into simple words, so to understand his comic, one mentally replaces "fire box" with 'engine.' Really, the opposite of explaining things: he would have done just as well to use symbols (which is what he ends up doing for the evolutionary tree). Except it is supposed to be funny when the reader knows the replacement code.

I'm not laughing.

Profile Image for Cecily.
1,106 reviews3,878 followers
November 26, 2020
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 in the air to other people.

The new tiny bad thing is all around, but we can not see it. So we stay home almost all the time, clean our hands and what we touch very often, do not get close to other people, make everything clean again, and keep staying home.

We can not see people we love except if we live with them. We can not see our friends. This makes some people sick in mood and mind, even if they are not sick with the new tiny bad thing. They wonder which is worse. People don't agree, and that makes more people have bad moods and sad minds.

There is good news this week. Bright people have been working hard to find ways to stop people getting sick with the new tiny bad thing. But there are many sick people and more every day, so doctors are still working hard to make sick people better. And some still die.

There is hope, but that's next month or year. For now, life is hard and sad.

The book itself

Image: Bottom of an up-goer: “This end should point toward the ground... If it starts pointing toward space you are having a bad problem and you will not go to space today.”

Randall Munroe is a former programmer and roboticist at NASA, best known for the geeky stick-figure comic, xkcd. These are some of the complicated things he explains in this book:

• US Space Team's Up Goer Five (Saturn V rocket)
• Tiny bags of water you’re made of (Animal cell)
• Sky boat with turning wings (Helicopter)
• Food-heating radio box (Microwave)
• Shape checker (Padlock)
• Box that cleans food holders (Dishwasher)
• Machine for burning cities (Nuclear bomb)
• Big tiny thing hitter (Large Hadron Collider)
• The pieces everything is made of (Periodic table)
• Sky toucher (Skyscraper)

Image: Top of a hand computer: “These machines began as radios for talking out loud to people who were far away... As these machines turned into computers, they started taking the place of a lot of the things we used to carry around - like picture takers, music players, and even books.”

The “Page before the book starts” explains Munroe’s general rationale. That includes going against the temptation to use big words to sound clever, and the creative fun of coining alternatives. A paragraph before the list of words at the back explains how he chose them (it wasn’t entirely scientific and included fiction and emails), and what get-outs he allowed himself (talk, talking, and talked count as one word).

My second attempt with the unofficial Up-Goer Five text editor was to describe a simple procedure:

How to make a hot leaves drink

1. Get water that is safe to drink.
2. Make the water very hot. You can use fire or find a safer way.
3. Put a small bag of drinking leaves in a cup.
4. If you like sweet drinks, add some tiny sweet pieces to the cup.
5. When the water is very hot, put some in the cup - not too full.
6. You can add a bit of white she-animal drink to the leaves drink.
7. Gently move the hot water, drinking leaves bag, and other things around the cup.
8. When you like the color, take the leaves bag out of the cup.
9. Find a sweet round thing - or two - to have with the hot leaves drink.
10. Be sure the cup and drink cool down a bit before you drink it.
11. You can put the sweet round thing in the hot leaves drink but if you do, take it out quickly. It goes soft and wet, but it may break. The drink and the round thing will be different and maybe not so nice as if you had them on their own.

This one is slightly more amusing than my Covid one, but also harder to understand, especially “white she-animal drink” and “sweet round thing”. Go to the Up-Goer Five text editor, HERE, to see if you can come up with better alternatives. CAVEAT: It uses a slightly different word list from the one at the back of the book, and which you can use at xkcd.com/simplewriter.

Image: Using Up-Goer Five text editor, the unofficial Thing Explainer text checking site

How and why to write clearly

It seems obvious to want to write clearly, but in politics and advertising, the opposite is sometimes the aim, as Orwell warned in Politics and the English Language, which I reviewed HERE.

I enjoyed revisiting the ideas behind Thing Explainer with tech writer friends, playing around with the unofficial Up-Goer Five text editor, and discussing the results. (I am aware that my reviews do not follow the principles of plain English, brevity, or good technical writing. The context and audience are different.)

Simplified Technical English (STE) and global English
Some tech writers write in STE, which has strict rules about which words and grammatical structures they can use. It minimises ambiguity, so is especially helpful for readers who need to understand crucial information quickly or whose first language is not English. It’s also good if the text will be translated because machine translation is the normal first stage these days, and computers aren’t yet as good at understanding context cues as humans.

My friends and I don’t work within the tight constraints of STE, but the underlying principles are useful and much the same as those in The Global English Style Guide, which I reviewed HERE.

Not as easy as it seems
Short simple words, and short simple sentences are good, but using the the Up-Goer Five text editor demonstrates that following those principles doesn’t guarantee brevity or clarity: if the vocabulary is too small, you need to use more words, and even then, there may be ambiguity or bafflement, especially without a shared cultural background (“white she-animal drink”).

A further problem is that English is a language full of polysemy: one string of letters having multiple, sometimes unconnected meanings. Using a common word in a less common sense might be more confusing than using a word not on the list. “Rose” is a flower and an unrelated verb, “watch” might be a thing on your wrist or what you do with your eyes, and “mouth” is common, but “mouth of the river” is a more opaque idiom. This is probably why the Up-Goer Five text editor flags “leaf” but allows “leaves”.

Image: “Bat” can be something you hit things with, the verb for wielding the bat, or a flying mammal. (Source.)

Is this book clear and simple?

Not entirely, but that’s not really the aim. Munroe uses a restricted vocabulary for creative amusement and makes it surprisingly informative. For similar reasons, I occasionally use Simple English Wikipedia for complex subjects: simple.wikipedia.org. It uses a vocabulary of around 1,500 words, which is just enough for articles to read like natural English.

Munroe acknowledges the need for specialist terms, but says:
"There are lots of other books that explain what things are called. This explains what they do."
However, if you really want to understand what things do, or if you are learning English, this might be more frustrating than helpful. The humour comes from guessing the more appropriate words and laughing at his convoluted alternatives. Thus, it demonstrates that you do need some specialist vocabulary - not just to avoid ambiguity and wordiness, but also because, in moderation, it’s more memorable.

John Wyndham, in the short story Pillar to Post, has a traveller to a radically unfamiliar place say:
I had acquired an understanding of the language… but the concepts that were behind it did not necessarily follow.
Language is more than words and grammar, we need context and specificity as well, otherwise we’re like aliens trying to make sense of a new planet, which is the theme of Nathan W Pyle’s Strange Planet which, like Thing Explainer, uses descriptive phrases instead of more specific words. For example “mouth stones” for teeth, “vibrating creature” for cat, and “star damage” for sun tan:

Image: The smell of "delicious sweet disks" is actually the smell of "an ancient light source" (Source.)

Edit: Whoever came up with this, true or not, thinks along Munroe lines:
"Someone in my Norwegian class didn't know the word for cowboys so called them 'American horse pirates' and I've been laughing about it for about an hour."
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.5k followers
February 11, 2016
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. People put these machines on boxes, doors, and cars, to try and control who can open or close them.

What's interesting about these machines isn't really the machine itself. There are lots of different kinds that work in different ways, but they're all the same in one way. They try to put people into groups.

By checking whether someone has a piece of metal that's the right shape, this machine is really a way to try to tell whether people are who they say they are. It's an idea - about which people should be allowed to do something - brought to life in metal.


When the light metal or air is pushed together, it also starts another run-away fire here. These run-away fires help make each other stronger. By adding more and more steps like this, we found we could make the fires as big as we wanted, and at first we built the machines larger and larger.

But then we stopped making the machines larger, and started making them smaller instead. We didn't stop because we didn't want to burn larger cities. We just realized you could burn a city more easily with a few small machines than with one big one. Soon, we had enough small machines to burn as many cities as we wanted.

We stopped making the machines larger because the ones we had were big enough to burn everything. There was nothing larger to burn.

This machine works by throwing pieces of air down a hallway so that they hit together really hard. The air hits with so much power that the pieces break in strange new ways, as if it shakes the air - and space itself - so hard that things fall out.

Most of these pieces only last for a moment, while space is being shaken really hard, and disappear as quickly as they appear. But by watching what flies out from the place where the air was hit, we can figure out what we shook out.

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.

People who know a lot of things and told me some of them


People who helped a lot


And most of all, Strong Pretty Ring-Wearer

Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.5k followers
February 11, 2016
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. ("You'll learn all the wrong vocabulary," she sighed, shaking her head). But I've hopefully escaped intact: my German is good enough by now that I'm not likely to believe Bildermacher really is the word for "camera", or Hochziehzimmer the word for "elevator", or Himmelsboot the word for "airplane". Anyway, enough about that. The content of the book is more interesting than the language.

Most people seem to be treating Thing Explainer as no more than a weird bit of entertainment; but, like Perec in La disparition, I think the author isn't just doing it to demonstrate his ingenuity. A couple of weeks ago, I read an annoying novel called Topologie de l'amour, which purports to give you an idea of what mathematicians are like. The author has evidently met some mathematicians, and he's by no means wrong about everything: for example, mathematicians tend to be very impractical in romantic matters. What he missed, though, is that the interesting thing about them isn't their habit of falling in love with the wrong people, but their way of looking at the world. Munroe's book does a far better job of conveying what that unusual angle is.

Clever people, as Munroe says in the introduction, typically like to demonstrate that they're clever by using big, unusual words. Mathematicians don't exactly refuse to use big words, and they can also think it's fun to show off this way. But in their hearts, mathematicians don't want to do this. Mathematics is all about reducing things to their essence, and that means using as few words as possible. If a mathematician could get by using only one word, that would make them truly happy. (Formal logic is the most thoroughgoing expression of this impossible dream). Thing Explainer doesn't go to such absurd lengths, but Munroe shows that you don't need to know a lot of words to be clever; it's enough to understand what the words really mean, and how they are connected to each other and to the world. He gives wonderful, concise explanations of things like plate tectonics, and how a cyclone forms, and the strategy the Mars Rovers used to come down successfully in one piece. I learned here how a turbofan works - for some reason, I had never got around to finding out. He has the best one-sentence summary of quantum mechanics I have ever seen. ("About a hundred years ago, people learned that the idea of 'Where' doesn't always work for very small things"). When you describe things in this unusual way, you can get a different idea of them, and you can think that the big words you normally use are really stopping you from seeing the world instead of helping you see it better. Munroe has a couple of deadpan, helpfully informative pages on nuclear weapons ("Machines for burning cities"). When he gives you a schematic of a Trident submarine ("World-ending boat") and the history that led up to building this interesting device, it's possible that you may briefly wonder whether it is in fact a good thing.

On the last page, Munroe shows you the Tree of Life: the family tree of all the living things there have ever been, who, as he says, are all related to each other. Or, to be exact, he shows you a tiny part of this tree - which really should contain a branch for every creature alive, and the many, many more that used to be alive and are now dead. He asks you to imagine all the grains of sand there are on all the beaches on Earth. And then he asks you to imagine that each of those grains was another whole Earth with its own seas and beaches, and how many grains of sand you would have if you added all those beaches together. Well, that's how many branches you would need to draw if you really drew the Tree of Life.

As he says in the book's last sentence: next to the world we are talking about, all our words are small.
Profile Image for Ash.
22 reviews1 follower
December 10, 2015
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 a "bag of water full of bags of water with more bags of water." ::facepalm::
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
653 reviews6,942 followers
November 26, 2016
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, the novelty wears off around the 4th or 5th “thing”. There on out, we might find ourselves having to reverse translate the strange gibberish of too-easy words. Can’t really see who this book is meant to help. It is not the words that make a book easy or difficult to read, is one thing Munroe manages to demonstrate. The same book without the gimmick might have been genuinely helpful to some college students at least…
Profile Image for Gerwyn.
17 reviews4 followers
December 30, 2015
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, but while I'm sure Randall has a very clear picture in his head about what he wants to say, it's not always obvious just what he's trying to convey. For example, I never knew the ISS had a "porch" and the problem is that I have no idea what its proper name is, which is going to now involve time on the internet finding out. Yes, I suppose that's a good thing, but should I really be looking things up, after reading a book that's supposed to explain things to me.

Likewise, it's been 30 years since I was last in a biology class, so when confronted with "Bags of death water" I'm a) kinda impressed in a sci-fi kind of way, and b) annoyed because I have absolutely no idea what "bags of death water" actually are, thus necessitating another return to Google.

Overall, while "Thing Explainer" is a good concept, I feel it loses something... no, a lot... in execution.

Rather read his "What If" - it's funnier and there's more explosions.
Profile Image for K.T. Katzmann.
Author 4 books96 followers
March 28, 2016
 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, there's someone who's kvetching about Munroe referring to helicopters as "sky boats with turning wings." That's literally right on the inside dust jacket.

People . . .

 photo 315990_1_zpsymwpalel.jpg

The premise of the book's right there, on the book and in the Amazon description. If you what something more technical, don't buy Thing Explainer.

But I love this.

I'm a teacher, so I love using this in class.

There's humor (sometimes dark) in the descriptions. I love that atom bombs are "machines for burning cities."

I love the intellectual puzzle of thinking things through. The back cover says "Star where people live in a made-up story named after a big pile of sand." Holy crap, that's a Dune reference. "Stuff named after a little world named after a god of food kids eat in the morning" is brilliant: Ceres, cereal, and cerium.

I have literally learned things I didn't know about, so it succeeded at the mission statement.

It's worth the price of admission just to see Munroe explain the Large Hadron Collider using the thousand most common words in English and a boat metaphor.

It's a fun book and a masterwork of a self-imposed language challenge. I've spent entire lunch hours pouring over this, and I undoubtedly will again.
Profile Image for Mike.
478 reviews370 followers
June 20, 2016
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 subtle, but wicked sense of humor to help deliver the information. And for the most part I greatly enjoyed the book, all 64 (very, very dense) pages of it. But I felt the book hamstrung itself a bit too much.

In the course of trying to make this book as accessible as possible (a good thing!) Munroe limited himself to the thousand most common words in the English language. While I commend his enthusiasm and goal of making the book accessible to the masses I thought this tactic limited the book in several places. This book delves into both the common place (dishwashers, light, elevators) and the complex (nuclear weapons, biological cells, computers), and while it is nice to have components explained in straightforward ways some pieces are just so complex or specialized that using this plain language is either unhelpful or provides a very vague description of what process is occurring.

For instance, Munroe typically has to use the word 'water' for liquids and 'air' for all gases. Because they were used in some many places it would be easy for a person to get confused and mistake different kinds of 'water' and 'air'. In these cases the goal of simplifying the language for the masses could easily result in confusion. Maybe if he had upped the number of allowable words to 2,000 or 3,000 things would have been much clearer and probably still as accessible.

But that doesn't detract too much from some of the great great art and humor in this book. Munroe has some very straightforward but detailed drawings of the various subjects with some nice little humorous asides or pictures folded in. This book is quite educations and would be a great resource both for children just starting to learn about the world (sort of an updated The Way Things Work) and adults who just want to learn more about the world. Even areas I was already familiar with were shown in a new and humorous light.
Profile Image for Paperclippe.
521 reviews103 followers
May 13, 2016
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 reasons - first of all, because What If? is the book I would have written if I were smart enough to write it, which is to say: it is exactly my kind of knowledge delivery system using exactly my kind of humor, and second of all, because Randall Munroe needs to be capped. No one should be allowed to be this funny so for the rest of us we're going to have to level cap his humor, and if I say Thing Explainer is better, than there's no point in living, except to read more Randall Munroe books). It is written using only the one thousand - er, ten hundred - most commonly used words in English (and he includes a list of those words as well as his reasons for using the list that he did), but is written with such a deep understanding of those topics that it's impossible not to understand the concepts he's driving at. And I honest-to-god learned something. Lots of things, actually.

My favorite pages in the book were the "Red World Space Car" (Mars rover), the "Food heating radio box" (microwave), "The pieces everything is made of" (periodic table), and of course, the "Machine for burning cities" (nuclear bomb).

If you didn't laugh once after reading that sentence, this book is not for you and also, we should not be friends.

Honestly: I posted so many pictures of so many excerpts of this book on Instagram that I should be sued for copyright infringement. But it really was just that good and I really did want to share it that much. So do yourself a favor: go out and get this book, and open it up to any page, and just read. You'll learn something. And you'll be glad you did.
Profile Image for Nick Pageant.
Author 6 books874 followers
September 12, 2016
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.)
Profile Image for Beth.
744 reviews40 followers
January 12, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Becky.
1,319 reviews1,612 followers
December 26, 2015
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 armed sea animal secretions and ask how they make me feel. (Answer: Like he should wash his hands.)

There's a lot of different things explained in this book, from space boats to shape checkers to the big tiny thing hitter, and it's quite fun to read through, not only for the creative way things are explained, but for the humor inserted here and there throughout, and the little drawing Easter eggs as well. Fun stuff. Maybe not quite as much fun as What If? but still pretty fun.
Profile Image for Jesse Richards.
Author 2 books13 followers
December 12, 2015
Beautiful helpful diagrams constrained by a contrived vocabulary limit.
Profile Image for Fred Forbes.
953 reviews48 followers
January 2, 2016
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" in the book's vernacular) most used words and it is the forcing definitions to comply with this guideline that causes me brain pain. Why use "space boat" instead of "space ship"? Because it makes the author laugh. He enjoyed the idea that letting go of complicated language made it impossible to sound dumb since when using terms like "space boats" (anything traveling in space) and "water pushers" (pumps) it already sounds stupid. Any type of liquid becomes "water" - gasoline is "fire water", ink is "writing water", etc. Frankly, using "sky boat with turning wings" for helicopter, "boat that goes under the sea" for submarine is overkill in his desire to simplify. I did enjoy the drawings and the concepts but the lack of vocabulary was a major annoyance. So 4 for the pix and concept, 1 for the silliness of the simple words, I'm laying a 2 star rating it.
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,372 reviews1,420 followers
March 31, 2016
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 words in the English language.

Every page is a gem, but I particularly loved The Pieces Everything is Made of (The Periodic Table of Elements) pg 47-48 and The US's Laws of the Land (United States Constitution) pg 14. Though simple enough for a child to understand, the cartoons contain small puns and inside jokes that adults will enjoy too.
Profile Image for Kiri Fiona.
273 reviews15 followers
June 15, 2017
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. It's actually quite cool to have a look at that list and imagine all the things I couldn't explain using what's on there. Like GR - I couldn't explain how to write a review with just the words on that list, so it takes mad skill (and, I guess, a Physics degree and experience in robotics at NASA) for Mr Munroe to explain actual smart people things using only those words and pictures.

Thinking on it, I don't even know what one of these < is called, so I'd be screwed from the get go.

Already mentioned the acknowledgements page.

The Things in this Book by Page page. That was actually really helpful for my dumb ass, because with some of the things he was describing I straight up had no idea what the thing even was. Case in point:

Quote… Machine for burning cities

Do you know what that is?

Quote… Big tiny thing hitter


So my ass needed the translations in the Table of Contents. Much appreciated, Mr Munroe.

What I didn’t love:
The Periodic Table went way over my head - I had to read it with a copy of the actual periodic table up on my phone, or I would have had no idea what he was describing. Except the Ag and Au ones, because I knows my coin.

Also, I wish it was longer.

Just ordered a few more hardback copies for the people I love. This is a great, clever, quirky read and it makes me feel a little smug because I didn't read only dirty, smutty goodness today.
Profile Image for Conor Ahern.
655 reviews186 followers
June 30, 2018
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 read while baked.
Profile Image for John Devlin.
Author 19 books69 followers
January 4, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Maciej Nowicki.
74 reviews50 followers
May 7, 2019
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, witty asides along with the more in-depth diagrams and explanations clearly and funny labelled.

So if you're interested in how things work this book basically has lots of diagrams with lots of description of how it works. If you struggled to understand each and every element on the Periodic Table or if you tried and failed to explain how a computer works to your children or grandparents than grab this book. Thing Explainer is a kind of encyclopedia for kids, full of hand-made pictures, arrows, and descriptions. I really liked the layout and a bit childish style of everything in the book.

You could definitely use any of the pages of the book as a sort of starting point for a bigger exploration of any concept. Then, you can look through and see if you’d like to go further on or maybe let your children pick out what they're interested in.

Unfortunately, due to the fact that many pictures are gigantic and cover both pages, the book is inconvenient to read on a Kindle or other handy... (if you like to read my full review please visit my blog: https://leadersarereaders.blog/thing-...)
706 reviews2 followers
February 1, 2016
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 about it with anyone else who knows how it works (unless they know how it works from reading this book!), then this is the book for you. If you enjoy engaging your knowledge with the knowledge of others, read something else! (You are probably wondering why this lover of language read this book? I was hoping to understand some complicated things and didn't realize the premise of the book until way too long after I started. To anyone who has read this book, that will seem ridiculous, but I just thought the author was trying to explain things in really basic language that anyone could understand. I hated it before I realized the premise and I still hate it and don't understand why it was necessary anyway.)
Profile Image for Alfred Haplo.
285 reviews45 followers
September 12, 2016
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 sometimes even before. Maybe a name for each part will help. But that would be too many words. This is not that kind of book.

Perhaps I can pin a picture of the Thing next to the real Thing. That will help me remember what does what. The picture of The Room That Helps People will show that this drawer has stuff that helps kids breathe. And that drawer has stuff for cleaning. The picture will help me not use stuff for cleaning to help kids breathe. I really like the picture of Shared Space House. When I grow up, I want a room with a beautiful view of the earth. And never, ever go into space naked. At the People Door, you will need to put on space clothes before going through, or you’ll die.

I love animals. Especially those with bones. The picture of Animals with Bones tells me that my Lucy was a… long bitey dog? Or smelly dog? Or river dog? Or tiny screaming dog? Or animal with hair? Or animal eater? This picture is no help. I will fail zoology. Let’s try this picture, The Pieces Everything is Made Of. It has a table with lots of squares. This square is for stuff we cannot breathe or we die. That square is for stuff that lasts for two minutes. Next to it is a square for stuff that lasts for one minute. And two squares up on the right is for gray matter we don’t find much of. I think I will also fail chemistry. But this is not that kind of book either.

However, this is a book for all ages. If you are 5-years old, you will learn about Things explained in big words (for you). You will feel like a big boy (or girl). If you are 100-years old, you will learn about Things explained in small words that you can tell 5-year old children and they will think you know a lot about Things. (The light blue text might kill your eyes though but hey, you will still look smart). Or, if you are like me who is not old, not young, but is super curious about Things and likes to be amused with super fun books, then go read it.

[words in italics are phrases from book]

... And I used to want to sit in this.

Profile Image for Carly.
423 reviews77 followers
February 24, 2016
Meine Meinung: Randall Munroe ist längst kein Unbekannter im Internet. Sein Webcomic xkcd ist schon ein moderner Klassiker, meine ich. Das Tolle an ihm ist, dass er weder sich, noch die Wissenschaft ernst nimmt. Er versucht nicht wie ein Schlaumeier zu klingen, um dem Leser auch ja zu beweisen, dass er es so ziemlich auf allen Gebieten drauf hat. Randall Munroe erklärt schwierige Sachverhalte für Laien, die sich wenig oder überhaupt nicht auf einem Gebiet auskennen. Das macht er mit einfachen Worten, die überraschend genau sind, um diese Dinge zu erklären.

Wie viele andere Schüler musste ich während meiner Schulzeit (und auch während meiner Unizeit, also jetzt) komplizierte Fachbegriffe lernen, um sie auf Knopfdruck wiederzugeben. In manchen Fächern, wie Biologie, Physik oder Chemie ging das nicht sehr gut aus. Ich wusste, was die Wörter ausdrücken sollten, aber diese ellenlangen Worte konnte ich mir einfach nicht merken (weil ich auch irgendwie keinen Sinn darin sah). Natürlich verstehe ich, wieso es Fachbegriffe gibt. Aber wenn man Laie ist und auf unterhaltsame Weise etwas lernen möchte, ohne von Millionen Begriffen erschlagen zu werden, dann würde ich euch dieses Buch ans Herz legen. Um seinen Inhalt kurz in den Worten des Autors zusammenzufassen: "Aber es gibt schon viele Bücher, die erklären, wie man die Dinge nennt. Dieses Buch erklärt, was sie tun."

Die Aufmachung des Buches ist ein Kunstwerk an sich. Manche Seiten sind aufklappbar, sodass eine größere Doppelseite entsteht, die Zeichnungen sind einfach und gleichzeitig sehr detailreich. Allein mit der Betrachtung der Zeichnungen kann man längere Zeit verbringen, weshalb es ratsam ist, das Buch tatsächlich zu genießen und langsam zu konsumieren.

Aufgrund der einfachen Schreibweise, der Autor verwendet die 1000 am häufigsten gebrauchten Wörter durch das ganze Buch hinweg, haben sich die Übersetzer an einigen Stellen wohl gezwungen gefühlt, ein bisschen zu schummeln. Das ist auf keinen Fall eine Kritik, sondern lediglich ein Punkt, den ich gerne ansprechen möchte, da hier die sprachlichen Barrieren erkennbar werden. Dies sagen sie allerdings auch in einer Nachbemerkung hinten im Buch und erklären ihr Vorgehen.

Bewertung: Ich liebe Randall Munroes Comics schon seit Langem. Er hat eine ganz eigene Art zu schreiben, die wirklich einmalig ist. Das Buch Der Dinge-Erklärer ist jedem zu empfehlen, der wie der Autor selbst, nicht alles sehr ernst nimmt. Übrigens ist das Buch mittlerweile das beliebteste Buch in meinem Bücherregal. Freunde und Familie jeden Alters lieben es darin zu schmökern, weshalb es sich super als Geburtstags- oder Weihnachtsgeschenk eignet (auch für die Personen, die nicht gerne lesen, denn jeder mag unterhaltsame Strichmännchencomics, das ist ein universelles Gesetz).
Profile Image for Santhosh.
128 reviews152 followers
July 3, 2016
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 sentence/passage (and this was supposed to be a quick read) to understand what he's talking about, and appreciate the beauty of what he's attempting.

Allow me to also give a head's up that, despite what the title implies, the book is pretty useless if you're actually looking to learn about something only from here. If you already know the subject then it's a nice fun read, as you hang the various pieces of information onto your existing mental hooks. If you know nothing about the subject, then it's kind of a starting point where you just get a (very) general idea. But for the majority of the subjects where your knowledge is basic and half-forgotten and you're grasping your memory for the actual names and terms (as I was), may the force be with you. This exasperation is the most fun part of the book though, and is beautiful. Beautiful as in reading poetry: you're here not for the content, as much as for the writing.

That being said, I do wish there had been an index on each page, with the actual words and terms, to go with Munro's typically subtle but wicked humour. The book is in the form of layout diagrams for each subject, and he explains each component, thus adding to the whole. He delves into both the common (pencils, locks, trees, etc) and the complex (the International Space Station, biological cells, nuclear subs, the Large Hadron Collider, etc) and there were times where I had no idea what was going on, such as:
The strange thing is, no one tells the part where to go. It just falls out into the room with all the other parts, and hangs around until it runs into whatever part it’s supposed to grab. (Or until another part grabs it!) This sounds strange, and it is! There are so many parts, and they’re all grabbing each other and stopping each other and helping each other.

Overall, I did have fun though, pulling up wikipedia and breaking jail on my memory cells, and with a reinforced respect for names and words.
Profile Image for Crowinator.
806 reviews353 followers
December 22, 2015
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") taught me A LOT about the reasons for the different architectural designs, but I couldn't take away as much from some of the other sections, like an explanation of all the elements in the periodic table ("the pieces everything is made of"), without having the real terms to refer to. (The periodic table section is still my favorite, full of so many little jokes and smart, memorable explanations -- I just needed to refer to a real periodic table at the same time to make it mean something.)

I admire his total commitment to his conceit, and this is undeniably a fun, intelligent reading/viewing experience, but maybe an index of terms at the back? End notes? In-text citations? Something more to give the really, really awesome diagrams more context. Maybe that means I'm missing the point in a humorless way (after all, I could always Google what's inside a washing machine if I really wanted to know what all the pieces are called and then put that together with Munroe's simplified explanations), but I feel this was still a missed opportunity to actually explain how things work.

Still love it though -- still buying it for people as Christmas presents -- still (maybe) buying it for myself so I can spend more time with it since I had to return it to the library (or maybe going back on the holds list).
Profile Image for Kaethe.
6,361 reviews455 followers
September 25, 2017
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 I am both amused and well-informed. A NASA roboticist who quit to draw stick people and made a successful career as the ubiquitous comic of technology. His family must be so proud! There isn't a lab that doesn't have at least one XKCD up.
But I think that's enough reading today. Ikea catalog is next.
Personal copy of the Offspring, graciously loaned to me.
Profile Image for Paula.
Author 1 book212 followers
December 4, 2015
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 in the illustration above. If you've got a smarty-pants in your life, or even a would-be smarty-pants, this funny thing is the book for them.

All my picks for best books to give this holiday are at http://www.unadulterated.us/pink-me/2...
Profile Image for Marie.
462 reviews66 followers
December 2, 2015
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.
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