“Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words”

“Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words”


Randall Munroe has done it again. The creator of xkcd and author of What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions has a new book coming out in a week or so. In Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, he has done just what the title promises: He has taken sophisticated works and broken them down to simple illustrations and words. In fact, throughout the entire book, Munroe limited his word usage to 1000 of the most commonly used words in our language. (This list of words is included in the book, but “thousand” must not be among them, because the list is titled “The Ten Hundred Words People Use Most.”)

Using these simple words and line drawings, Munroe breaks down the periodic table, explains the difference between the U.S. Constitution and the USS Constitution (and how each works), and introduces us to the Large Hadron Collider (the big tiny-thing hitter). Munroe uses blueprint drawings to explain 45 complicated natural phenomena, like the animal cell, tectonic plates and the night sky, as well as works of human ingenuity, like the inner-workings of a padlock, a nuclear reactor and a cockpit.

The book is recommended for ages 5 to 105, and I think that’s pretty spot-on. Forty-something engineers who grew up studying David Macauley’s Castle before graduating to his The Way Things Work, or those who loved learning about the anatomy of a city in Kate Ascher’s The Work will painstakingly devour it page by page before giving it to their offspring. (If you can pry it out of their hands.) And young inquiring minds can get lost in it… in a good way.

A friend of mine who matches the above description of the forty-something engineer challenged me to write this review using Munroe’s list of 1000 words. I gave up early on, but was pleased to discover it wouldn’t be as difficult as expected, because Munroe provides a “simplewriter” on his website. I plugged in this review, and if I decide to simplify, these are the words I need to go back and change:

Screenshot 2015-11-11 09.33.08

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 9780544668256 | November 24, 2015)

Beth Golay

Beth is a reader, writer, marketer and Books & Whatnot founder. Even though she knows better, she's a sucker for a good book cover and will positively swoon if a book is set in appropriate type. @BethGolay