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Book Review: XKCD’s THING EXPLAINER is Brilliantly Simple

Note: This review uses only the 1,000 most common English words.

Talking simply about the way we understand the world is hard. Many times people who make books will use big words to explain even bigger ideas. But a new book from the man who wrote another book that I liked very much does away with that kind of talking. Thing Explainer is a book full of pictures that show how everything from space boats (spacecraft) to the bags of water that make you (cells) to the pieces that everything is made of (the periodic table) work using only the ten hundred most-used words (he did it because everyone liked this one drawing a lot). It takes very hard ideas and makes them simple enough so that anyone can learn about them—I liked it a lot.

This book has the kind of drawings that let you know it is by the same person as the last. Stick people and jokes that not everyone will get join heavy metal power buildings (nuclear reactors) and the big tiny thing hitter (the Large Hadron Collider) to make them easy to learn with a way of talking about the world that is fun and not bad at all.

Inside the book, there are 45 different drawings that show you how things work. Some take up more than one side in the book’s paper, and one comes out to make a picture for your wall. The ideas behind these drawings are very big, but the man who did the last book makes these ideas easy to learn because they aren’t about big words anymore. The big words are gone — only the big ideas are left. That’s a way to learn that I have not seen before, one that is hard to understand at first, but then is very clear.

Here is a drawing from the book to show you what it has in it. It’s a space car for the red world:

Explainer_ART(Touch this with your machine hand to make it bigger.)

It may seem like the book would be easy to read fast, but the man who wrote the last book put so much work into each drawing that you can get lost in each of the book’s paper pieces for a long time. That may be because it is hard to read writing like this, but it also may be because you really take the time to learn the big ideas behind each drawing.

The book is hard to read at times because using only ten hundred words can sound weird in your head. But after your brain makes sense of the way the book reads, you start to love the big, big work that went into each drawing. It is hard to make a machine for burning cities (nuclear bomb) easy to learn if you don’t know all the big ideas yourself very well.

I think a lot of people will have a lot of fun reading this book. Even if you know many big ideas, it is fun to see them get very small. And if you just want to learn about how things work, then the book will show you some big ideas without hitting you with big words too. As an idea for how to write a book, I think Thing Explainer is a good one. It shows how even very large ideas can come through if the person writing the book knows how to make them small.

You can buy Thing Explainer by the man who wrote the other book kind of like this today.

Image Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/XKCD



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