Scoop Review of Books

Blue Prints

Thing Explainer: complicated stuff in simple words
by Randall Munroe (John Murray, 2015)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington

Thing_ExplainerRandall Munroe gave us the curiously named web comic xkcd and the bestseller What If? Serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions, which explains laws of science with cartoons. Now he offers a nice list of “the ten hundred words people use the most” and uses them to describe lots of interesting things – but what people are these, who use these words the most? Not my locals or whānau, methinks.

Included are: gun, horse, church, cigarette, beer, officer, soldier, village, yard, apartment, sex, love, shoot, god – and lady but no gentleman. And the other 985 words the author’s “people” use most. But in Thing Explainer – which explains things, even though I’m not sure what some of the things actually are because he doesn’t tell me in language I understand – the author left off four-letter words that are very common, because “some people don’t like to see them” and he “didn’t want to use those words anyway”.

It’s quite a fun book in its way, even though it’s not true that “food” comes out the end part of your alimentary canal. With its large but thin production format it presents like a child’s picture book. The whole thing made me feel rather blue (a four-letter word), with all those blue words, many on a blue background, with blue diagrams like old architectural drawings on drafting paper. If, as the author says, communicating facts is his aim, why is there so much small print? And in boxes with shaded background, to boot (or should that be “to foot cover to stop ground from hurting”?) I did find some of the descriptors fun, but wouldn’t use this book to learn facts. I’m looking forward to testing it on some science-oriented 9-and 14-year-olds I know.

If we’re going to go the American way, I prefer the U.S. Health Department method of reading age level testing of language for their health promotion information, which is pleasantly known as the SMOG readability test and is much easier to find your way through. A car may indeed carry the air “out of the fire box after it’s done burning” the “fire water”, but combustion and exhaust are far more exciting words – onomatopoeic, even. And preferable for children’s language development to increase their vocabulary rather than limit it; maybe this is not a book for children but for some “sky boat drivers”. For these people, there’s “stuff you touch to fly a sky boat”. Me, I’d rather have a pilot who operated the aeroplane’s controls.