Thursday, September 30, 2010

Banned Books Week: The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien

While Betty and I were at the library the other evening, I pointed out a display to her and explained that they were books that some people thought people should not be allowed to read.  She was genuinely appalled about this, and rightfully so. 

I've been a little remiss this week in not mentioning Banned Books Week, mainly because so many others have written much more eloquently about this issue.  I wanted to highlight a banned book that I recently read, but other than To Kill a Mockingbird, I didn't think I had any reviews in the queue that fit the bill.

Wrong.  For on the library's display was one of my recent reads, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.  I didn't realize this was a banned book, nor can I find much information about exactly why that is the case, but I agree with Rebecca from The Book Lady's Blog when she says that it might be too graphic and realistic for some people. That it definitely is. 

On the book jacket cover, it says that The Things They Carried should be required reading for every American.  During Banned Books Week, never has that statement rang more true.  Here's my review of The Things They Carried, written a few weeks ago but just being posted now.

The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
1990
233 pages

On the evening that President Obama announced the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom and told us that it is time to turn the page, I found myself turning the pages of a book about another war.

The Things They Carried is about the Vietnam War and the book is considered an American classic. Now I see why.  Now that I've turned the last page, I wholeheartedly agree with the book jacket that this is required reading for every American.

I should admit this: I didn't want to read this book.  I mean, if your literary diet is similar to mine, you're not going to readily pick up a "war book."  But enough people have said how remarkable this is, so when Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness hosted a read-along, I decided to give it a try. 

I'm so glad I did.  Yes, it's a tough subject matter, one that most of us would like to avoid.  Yes, there are some tough, heartwrenching scenes and descriptions.  But Tim O'Brien's writing in this is absolutely breathtaking.  He has the ability to put you right there in the middle of Vietnam with all the characters.

"To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true.  Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a firefight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. The trees are alive. The grass, the soil - everything. All around you things are purely living, and you among them, and the aliveness makes you tremble. You feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of your living self - your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by the force of wanting it. In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human concord, things you never knew you wanted. There is a kind of largeness to it, a kind of godliness. Though it's odd, you're never more alive than when you're almost dead.You recognize what's valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what's best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost." (pg. 77-78)

Is that not a spectacular piece of writing?

I want to elaborate for a minute on this: "Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life."  To me, those three sentences are the very core of this book. The Things They Carried has an element of mystery about it, because while it is billed as "A Work of Fiction by Tim O'Brien," it reads very much like a memoir due in large part to O'Brien including himself as a character in the book.  That leads the reader, including myself, to wonder how much of the story is true and how much isn't.

O'Brien uses this technique brilliantly and, I believe, on purpose.  I didn't experience the Vietnam War, but I do know that it was a very nebulous and confusing time.  We weren't quite sure why we were there or what to believe.  By using this literary device of purposefully not telling his reader what is true and what is not, O'Brien is making a similar statement on the times of which he writes.

Likewise, the "proximity to death bring[ing] a corresponding proximity to life" is also an intriguing line because, yes, there is so much death in this book but there is also so much life.  The soldiers of Alpha Company are very much alive, even in their deaths as their memory lives on.  And, as the ending makes clear, so are those who were left behind at home and those gone before their time. Being exposed to death so young has the effect of making one appreciate one's life and the lives of those we love.

This is an incredibly powerful book, one that should be (as I've said previously) required reading for every American.  I may not have wanted to pick up The Things They Carried, but once I did, I couldn't put it down.

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

5 comments:

Amy said...

Sounds like a very powerful and moving book. Great choice for banned books week, even if not on purpose :)

Shelley (Book Clutter) said...

I thought this book was very powerful as well. I loved his writing and his take on truth. It's a book I will encourage my kids to read.

Trisha said...

I love the idea of a kid actually being appalled at banned books instead of completely underwhelmed (which is how quite a few of my students react).

Sherry said...

I started this book but didn't finish it. I don't know why, but it just didn't engage me. Maybe it was the wrong time.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I didn't realize this book had ever been banned. That really surprises me.