Monday, January 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #15: Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

Something can be impressive, even admirable, and still not be the best idea in the world. It can be both a major achievement, and less useful in many ways than the thing it was based on. It can be fun and amusing but also a chore.

I am talking about XKCD creator Randall Munroe's 2015 book Thing Explainer here, in case you missed the title and the big book image off to the left there. And it is: all of those things.

The impulse, when talking about Thing Explainer, is to try to ape Munroe's language. I'm not going to do that; I like long words and long sentences and complicated thoughts, and I don't like artificially constraining myself.

But I'm not opposed to seeing how it works out when someone else artificially constrains himself.

Thing Explainer aims to be a The Way Things Work for a new generation, with pictures of many common or basic things and labels to explain them all. But the title hints at Munroe's new wrinkle: he wrote the book using only the thousand (or "ten hundred," as he puts it, since thousand isn't on his list) most common words in the English language.

It's a fun gimmick, but it's still a gimmick, on the same level as Oulipo or Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby, the novel without the letter e. It becomes particularly silly when the reader realizes "nine" is not one of those words, leaving Munroe to repeatedly count "eight, the number after eight, ten."

There are strictures that make a work stronger by supporting it, like a classical sonnet. This is not one of those. Instead, his limited vocabulary just makes Munroe avoid using the actual words that define things and instead call them "fire water" (petroleum) and "sky boat" (airplane) and "little house-food eaters" (mice). Some of those circumlocutions, admittedly, become pointed and nicely avoid the euphemisms baked into conventional language, like "machine for burning cities" (atomic bomb). But those are rare, and far outnumbered by the number after eight.

It all culminates in the least useful periodic table ever devised by the hand of man, where Munroe is unable to use the words "periodic" or "table" or "element" or "molecule" or "proton" or "neutron" or "electron" -- or, in fact, the names of any of the elements themselves. [1] So instead we get a lot of boxes in the well-known sequence with useless circumlocutions like "metal used in paint until we realized it made people sick" and "rock that looks like a cool tiny city" and "a rock that can change one kind of power to another."

Thing Explainer wanted to be a book that was simple enough to explain things to people who didn't know how this stuff worked. But, without using the right words, it instead becomes a book primarily for the people who already know very well how this stuff works, and and remember where Molybdenum and Thallium are supposed to be and what they do. Instead of being inclusionary with its simple words, it instead becomes exclusionary.

Using the right words is important. Knowing the right words to use is one of the central goals of education. Thing Explainer is a fun lark, but it's deeply wrong-headed at its core, and tends more to a smug "oh, I know what that means" response than actual learning. It is much more for scientists and technologists who get the joke than it is for children or other less-educated people trying to learn something real and true.

[1] This is untrue. The name of exactly one element is on his list of ten hundred words: gold. But having it there points out exactly how useless the rest of his labels are -- illustrating the difference between lightning and "sky light made when power moves."

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