Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words

Brand: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Manufacturer: Dey Street Books
Model: 2724335950882
ISBN 0544668251
EAN: 9780544668256
Category: Awesome Stuff
List Price: $26.99
Price: $14.89  (127 customer reviews)
You Save: $12.10 (45%)
Dimension: 13.00 x 9.00 x 0.59 inches
Shipping Wt: 1.74 pounds. FREE Shipping (Details)
Availability: In Stock
Average Rating: 4.2 out of 5 stars
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Product Description

Have you ever tried to learn more about some incredible thing, only to be frustrated by incomprehensible jargon? Randall Munroe is here to help. In Thing Explainer, he uses line drawings and only the thousand (or, rather, “ten hundred”) most common words to provide simple explanations for some of the most interesting stuff there is, including:
  • food-heating radio boxes (microwaves)
  • tall roads (bridges)
  • computer buildings (datacenters)
  • the shared space house (the International Space Station)
  • the other worlds around the sun (the solar system)
  • the big flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates)
  • the pieces everything is made of (the periodic table)
  • planes with turning wings (helicopters)
  • boxes that make clothes smell better (washers and dryers)
  • the bags of stuff inside you (cells)

How do these things work? Where do they come from? What would life be like without them? And what would happen if we opened them up, heated them up, cooled them down, pointed them in a different direction, or pressed this button? In Thing Explainer, Munroe gives us the answers to these questions and so many more. Funny, interesting, and always understandable, this book is for anyone—age 5 to 105—who has ever wondered how things work, and why.

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Top Reviews

Buy this (real) book!
by Amazon Customer (5 out of 5 stars)
July 15, 2016

This is such a fantastic book! I was a bit worried after reading some of the reviews which said that it was hard to understand, but I am glad that I bought it because it is, for the most part, very easy to understand. There were only a few times where I was a bit confused, and then had the "aha!" moment where I realized what the book was trying to convey.

The diagrams are fascinating and well drawn, and cover a large range of items such as parts of the body, nuclear power plants, the Earth, household appliances, the US Constitution (both the document and the ship), and various flying machines. I'm glad I bought the actual book rather than the Kindle version, because the writing is very small and also there are some pages that pull out to show extra large diagrams. The Kindle version simply couldn't compare. The book itself is pretty big, contains a large number of diagrams, and would make a great coffee table book or a gift.
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by B. P. Lyman (1 out of 5 stars)
April 24, 2019

Please read the other 1-star reviews before buying this book. I bought the book hoping it would help my kids learn about complicated things explained in ways that are easy to understand. This book is NOT that.

It's difficult to express how bad this book is. The drawings look informative and they pull you in, but the associated text is infuriatingly difficult to decipher. For example (describing a feature in a cross section of the earth's surface): "This is white stuff, like what we put on food to make it better". JUST SAY SALT! EVERYONE KNOWS WHAT SALT IS!
"Fire Water" on the same picture is oil I guess? I don't know because it's unnecessarily cryptic and I don't care enough to decipher it from context clues.

Just say oil and maybe we'll all learn something.
(Describing volcanoes, I think) "HOT ROCK MOUNTAIN The rocks that get pushed into the Earth get hot and watery, and some of them come up through holes in the rock above them." WT*? Does watery mean melted into lava? Just say lava.

This book would be fun if you want to guess what the author is describing by using simple words like "MOVIE MAKER DEEP GOER" (maybe some kind of submarine?) but I find it exhausting and the least useful book for my kids.

I hope i can return it. Total waste of money and time.
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A unique concept to bring advanced technological knowledge to everyone.
by Benjamin M. Weilert (4 out of 5 stars)
July 3, 2017

Growing up in the 1990's, one of the defining books that helped me understand the world around me was David Macaulay's The Way Things Work . Using "cartoonish" drawings of plenty of everyday (and not so everyday) machines, I gained plenty of useful knowledge that probably led me to eventually earn my Master's Degree in Mechanical Engineering in 2009. While Macaulay's illustrations were straight forward enough that they didn't need explanations, some concepts around today certainly need some words to help gain an understanding of the way things work.

Enter Randall Munroe, famed "xkcd" webcomic author and an all around smart guy. In late 2012, he published a comic that described each of the systems in NASA's Saturn V rocket with simple words. Described as "U.S. Space Team's Up Goer Five," the concept of using shorter, more common words to explain complicated concepts came to its full fruition in Thing Explainer. Using the thousand most common words, Munroe manages to humorously and thoroughly explain such "things" as the U.S. Constitution, The International Space Station, and the Large Hadron Collider (amongst many other common and complicated ideas).

While the concept is fun and this book could easily be used to help children understand these fascinating ideas, the thousand-word constraint is also its biggest weakness. Sure, I could deduce that "shafts" were usually "sticks" (or "hallways" if they were like mine shafts), and "fire water" often meant gasoline (or some other combustible fuel). However, I often found myself trying to figure out what the actual name of the item or part in question was because the "simple" name wasn't self-explanatory. Also, it was sometimes a challenge to read all the small text, as it usually wasn't arranged in a linear format, instead appearing in chunks around the illustrations to be close to the parts that were being described.

A unique concept to bring advanced technological knowledge to everyone, I give Thing Explainer 4.0 stars out of 5.
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You like the things explained, and simple
by J. Marsano (4 out of 5 stars)
February 27, 2016

Randall Munroe wanted to know what would happen if he tried to explain complicated things using only the most frequently-occurring English words. Culled from his e-mail filters, he arrived at a list and wrote a book explaining the Saturn V rocket and nuclear power, among others, using only those. While occasionally strained, the effort is a lovely oversized hardbound book that will see a lot of use.

While teaching 5th graders to summarize, I occasionally invoke passages from this book that I have read to the students. What makes this approach effective? What makes it funny? And what gets left out when we strip things down too far? Language is the seat of comprehension, and this book is both an engaging, funny coffee table book for adults as well as a light-hearted exploration of epistemology and language for young students. I recommend it highly.
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Great read for kids; adults beware!
by James V. (3 out of 5 stars)
March 1, 2018

Randall Munroe's earlier book "What If..." was a really, really, good read which gave me the impression that this one would just as good. However, I think this book was the author's personal exercise at word wizardry using "common" words which, at times, made the book cumbersome to read or comprehend. The one thing that the author hasn't lost is his acute sense of humor -- very engaging. I hope he'd consider rewriting this book with "regular" words such as "Atomic Bombs" instead of "Machine for Burning Cities".

Finally, bear in mind, all that jazz above is from this adult's point of the view. My 13 year old, on the other hand, found it extremely funny and engaging and actually remarked that "This guy really knows how to explain things!" (No kidding!)

Final Score: Randall - Texan Hawk, 1-0.
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A book of discovery
by John Danilson (5 out of 5 stars)
December 19, 2015

When I was very young I had an astronomy book full of pictures and lots of words. It was a childrens book written for someone three or four years older than me. I read that book for many many years. As I aged the book taught me more and more. Every visit to the book taught me something new about the heavens and the stars and the planets as they were known in the 50's before Alan Shepard and John Glenn. Mr. Munroe's book takes me back to that exciting time. The book is a jewell of discovery. Every page and every picture is annotated with rich descriptions and a growing description of what thing it is about. I bought this book for my grandson. He and I will have many hours of fun exploring the things here and I hope someday he too will remember all that this book taught him. "Oh the things he will see and the worlds he will explore" comes to mind as I browse this book. I cannot recommend it enough.
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For all curious people, ages 5 to 105
by MomOfTwins (5 out of 5 stars)
February 4, 2016

I'm a long time fan of Munroe's comic XKCD, so I went into this book with very high expectations, which it quickly surpassed. I bought three copies, one for our family and two as gifts, but my 9-year-old twin daughters were so enamoured with the book that I was glad for the extra copies, since we could each read through the diagrams at our own paces without fighting over the book. I had to physically remove the books from the children's hands before I could get the girls to come to the table for dinner.

The premise of explaining complex concepts using a repertoire of only 1000 words would have been kitschy in less skillful hands, but Munroe manages to hone in on meaning over form. The depth into which he is able to delve with a single page each devoted to huge concepts like the US Constitution, the human body, and the nuclear bomb is nothing short of genius. It will appeal to curious people of ages 5 to 105, and I look forward to discovering new gems in the book as I return to it over the years.

I can't imagine that this book lends itself well to a Kindle format. Despite the shortfalls of the dust jacket, which quickly fades and scratches easily, this book is worth purchasing in hardcover.
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Great words about "Thing Explainer" It is a big book! It is a very good book!
by Patrick Watts (5 out of 5 stars)
November 24, 2015

The thing about this book is that it only uses the ten hundred most used words by people to tell you about things that are hard to understand. It makes it sound kind of strange because you hear some words over and over again, but all in all, it is a very fun book to look at.

The man that wrote the book wrote about "Under a car's front cover" and the "US Space Team's Up Goer Five" and lots of things that have to do with a "Sky Boat." There is a page about "Colors of Light" but it is in black and white, so it is not as good as other pages. There is a big table in the middle that is "the pieces everything is made of" that has "the stuff they put in pools so nothing bad can grow in them," "brown metal that we use to carry power and voices" and "stuff you drink so doctors can look inside your body" along with all the other rocks and metals and air that is really fun to look at.

I paid money for "Thing Explainer" to put it under the tree for my seven year old, but I will have to read it before he does, I am sure.
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Buy a physical copy, not the Kindle version...
by ren0901 (5 out of 5 stars)
November 29, 2015

...because the details of the diagrams do not translate well to the smaller Kindle. You'll need all 13 x 9 inches to understand and appreciate the illustrations and explanations.
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Why this book is not stupid at all
by Sascha von Meier (5 out of 5 stars)
November 28, 2015

This book shows you that understanding how something works and knowing its name are different. In doing so, it makes you consider when and why it's actually important to use a special name for some things, and think harder about what your words are really telling people. The point of this book is not to explain things as well and as quickly as possible. It's to help you use your thinking bag in a different way than you do every day. That's why it's so much fun to read.

I'm a teacher at a school for people who already know a lot, and who are very good at what they do. (I teach them about power for our lights and machines.) We use big words and special names all the time. But I sometimes ask my students to try explaining complicated stuff using only simple words, because when you do that, you find out whether you really understand it. It forces you to ask, what is the most important idea here? I wish more teachers did this.

Putting ideas into simple words can also help you recognize how different words carry meaning other than just telling you what something is. This is especially true for things that people often have strong feelings about, like the laws of the land, or our body parts for making new people, or machines for burning cities. Special words can quietly suggest if something is a good or a bad idea, or cover up bad feelings. Playing the game of using only simple words can help you see things more clearly for what they actually are, and say just what you mean. So, this book shows us a way to pay special attention to how our own thinking bag works. And I think that's really, really cool.

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