Tuesday, October 2, 2012

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

This week is Banned Books Week, which also marks its 30th anniversary this year. Many book bloggers are using this week to feature special posts about censorship, to highlight authors whose works have been challenged, and to read books that have been banned.

I thought I would commemorate this week by providing a review or reflection each day of a book that is frequently banned or challenged. Yes, according to the list at the end of this post, I read banned books - and I'm betting you do the same. (Or, hopefully, will want to during this week.) Today I'm highlighting The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, with a review originally posted here on September 30, 2010.

The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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.

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