Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe – Review

thing explainer Randall Munroe book review logo

By Joe Forshaw

Thing Explainer was first published in 2015 and republished in 2017. The author Randell Munroe is the creator of the web comic xkcd and What If? He worked for NASA building robots until 2006, when he left to draw comics on the internet full time.

He has been nominated for a Hugo Award three times and has had an asteroid named after him. Asteroid 4942 Munroe is big enough to cause mass extinction if it ever hits a planet like Earth.

thing explainer book review Randall Munroe portrait

The author’s suitably minimalist portrait

The idea behind this book is to explain complex concepts using only the 1000 most used words in the English language and using them in the simplest form. The full range of words used appears in the back of the book under the capitalised title: TEN HUNDRED WORDS PEOPLE USE THE MOST.

The book is printed in A3 format and the front cover clearly illustrates the approach within. The cover is bedecked with illustrations of an oil rig, the space shuttle, a helicopter and a stick man standing on the letter ‘I’ in the first word of the title, which could represent the reader.


The title THING EXPLAINER is considered to consist of big words too difficult to understand, so as to assist these unfortunates there is an arrow pointing to the title under the notation BIG WORDS THAT TELL YOU WHAT THIS BOOK IS.

The oil rig, for clarity, is called HOLE-MAKING CITY BOAT, which is hardly clearer, or simpler to understand than Oil Rig. Thankfully the author’s name, RANDALL MUNRO, carries a pointed notation: MY NAME.

thing explainer Randall Munroe book review cover

Some book covers don’t accurately represent the contents within, but that can’t be said of this cover. It illustrates precisely what to expect within the ‘outer wrapping’. There are chapters on ‘food-heating radio boxes’, ‘bending computers’, ‘bags of stuff inside you’ and a ‘shape checker’ – and we all know what these are, don’t we?

Fortunately the inner flap carries translations.


I have no idea just what the purpose or concept of the book is. I can’t see it serves any purpose. It may be an intellectual exercise. Is it about AI and robots, after all the author did work on robots? When you put algorithms in binary form in a computer they take up a lot of space. So the concept of limiting the number of words that are programmed in seems logical.

The author, thanks to his background in the production of comics, successfully transfers these skills to the compilation of this book. It will need to be noted, though, that the readers of this book will at some time in the growing-up process need to learn the commonly accepted proper names for the things explained in Thing Explainer.

I would recommend this book to those who prefer not to call a spade a spade, but a HOLE MAKER instead.

‘Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words’ by Randall Munroe is published by John Murray


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