Cannonball Read #4: The Things They Carried

It's been about 5 years since I first read The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. At the time I was a senior in high school, disinterested enough to feel done with high school, but nerdy enough to keep up in a schedule full of AP classes. I'm 5 years older now, 22 and a grad student. I went out of state to college where I made friends, lost friends, grew up a little more. Now I'm back in my home state of Washington for grad school, rooming with old friends I knew as a kid. I look back to high school and the last four years and it feels like all those experience are, in the words of O'Brien, "a lot like yesterday, a lot like never."

Is it weird to feel nostalgic at 22? Maybe. But it's impossible not to when reading The Things They Carried. Part of it has to do with growing up, and part of it has to do with O'Brien's incredible storytelling. The novel itself is more like a collection of short stories about a company of soldiers in, before, and after Vietnam flowing together to form a nonlinear collage of characters and impressions. It creates a sense of mood sadder and more nostalgic than a marathon of "The Wonder Years," but absolutely beautiful.

Comparing how the book affected me 5 years ago and now is an odd experience. The first time I read it, my mind was opened up to the possibility that "absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth." This idea alone carried me through several university courses and has defined my outlook more than I probably realize. This time reading, I was struck by how true the stories were about young adults. The confusion, the loneliness, the early heartbreak. It doesn't matter that I didn't go to war, I understand these young men, specifically the chapter that O'Brien tells about his decision to go to war or dodge the draft. That feeling of choice paralysis, of complete aloneness in a decision, is captured so accurately, so perfectly. I understand that feeling exactly.

And that's O'Brien's thesis is, more or less, for this novel. Late in the book he states, "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth." O'Brien accomplishes this. I've never read another author that describes inner thoughts and doubts so well and so honestly. Maybe the stories are real--O'Brien did go to Vietnam--but maybe it's not. In the end it doesn't matter because they contains such a core of truth.

Reading this book is an experience. It causes you to live through the characters' stories they experience and tell and reflect on your own stories at the same time. It makes me wonder how much more nostalgic I'll feel, what truths I'll find, picking up The Things They Carried again 5 years from now.

"Stories are from joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."


  1. I read this book in university I think, and I remember it being excellent. I'm sure I have a copy somewhere, I would like to read it again.

    I think this is the book where one of the stories was turned into a film, the Soldier's Sweetheart one? It starred Skeet Ulrich. Such is my wealth of useless knowledge.

  2. Teabelly--I'm totally impressed by your wealth of knowledge! There is a 1998 movie version of "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" called A Soldier's Sweeetheart starring Skeet Ulrich and Kiefer Sutherland. I can't imagine this movie capturing a story about telling stories like the source material, but whatever.

  3. Now I want to re-read this too!

  4. I've never read it, but I think I'd like to.