“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien


Not a poem today, but a recommendation. I do not know why I had not come across this wonderful book earlier, but I am glad that I finally have. A finalist for both the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award The Things They Carried is a book I recommend highly.

But why on my poetry blog? It is because it flows like one long poem, a modern Iliad: beautifully written, ugly real, brutally honest and terribly sad.

Ostensibly it is a description of the things that soldiers carried with them during their stint in Vietnam, and after that stories of what life is like in a war zone, but of course it is much more than that: it is about Vietnam itself and about what it is like to be human and caught up in a mad world of death, destruction and fear.

If you have the chance, I would even suggest that your preference for format would be an audio version, as is mine; it adds to the poetic effect. I got mine through www.audible.com and it is powerfully read and performed by Brian Cranston, the brilliant main actor from the hit TV shows Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle.

2014.04.14 update: Having just finished listening to the audible production I discovered that there is a bonus: a wonderful 1994 op-ed piece from the New York Times written and read by the author. Now I recommend the book even more and the audible version in particular.

Thank you for dropping by the Book of Pain. As always I am interested in your comments.


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12 responses to ““The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

  1. I read it a long time ago but it could use another read. Thanks John>KB

    • KB, I’m just finishing it up now. Each story is a gem and even the repetition of some stories within stories gets to be interesting: you realize that he is writing to the reader as they talked to each other back on the ground in Vietnam: the same stories, repeated, yet each time different, each time with a different point. Very, very moving.

      • I know. I couldn’t find my copy so I’ve ordered a new one. Have been watching all me Vietnam films, platoon, we were soldiers, apocolypse now, never liked full metal jacket. Have written two poems, one about “In Country’ and another about “The War, The Wall and the War.” Will send them to you. >KB

      • That poem along with the other is not to be posted until Memorial day. Thanks anyway. I’m not posting anything except journal entries until the May 1st. >KB

  2. sfielding2013

    I agree. It was a wonderful book. I’ll see if I can get the audible version this time. Except that would mean not being able to see while driving . . . because of the tears.
    Thanks, John.

    • Stefanie, yes, at points it is terribly sad, all the more for us who are old enough to remember watching the news each night and now know that those thin young men moving on the screen then are now older, yet still damaged souls, still bearing the scars of that traumatic experience. But there is also a grave majesty and power in the story. The writer is, after all, a survivor and the brave brutality of the story is so much more important than the sanitized myth of so many of the other tales of Vietnam. I just keep wondering, which generation of warriors will it be that keeps us out of the next generation of wars?

  3. I’ve had the Cranston audiobook on my computer for a while. Thanks to your recommendation, I’m going to start it tonight. Very excited.

    • JR, it is a double reason to start. Cranston’s reading is amazing: so subtle, yet you catch every change of person and hear the regional accents…even the change of sex of the speaker is somehow clear. If you think he was good in Malcolm in the Middle or Breaking Bad…this to me is his finest performance because it is so subtle. so compassionate and yet so honest. And the material he has to work with…I am honestly shocked that I had not come across this book before and am quite anxious to get on to Going After Cacciato. I am glad I was able to return the favor…your recent post about Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning got me to go back and re-read parts of that…again, a book that although hard and sad to read, is so wonderfully compelling and human.

      • I just started listening to TTTC, and it’s fantastic. Great recommendation, and Cranston’s reading is perfect for the subject matter. Many thanks.

      • JR, I am so glad that you are enjoying it! I’d be interested on your take of that first chapter especially. Doesn’t it sound like a poem, a modern Iliad, especially as Cranston reads it? It is, I think, that essential element of story telling that is conscious of itself being a story to be told, and not just literature that is supposed to take you to a different world. I’m thinking of getting the written text and trying to precis it down into a poem.

      • It does. I don’t know about the Iliad — I’m a lot more familiar with the Odyssey — though I love how the book begins in microcosm: not only focusing on the things carried by one soldier, but on his own internal reflections on his girl back home.

        I need to go back over it. I started it late last night and have forgotten details.

        Though I can definitely see you writing on it.

  4. Thank you for the recommendation.