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  • Writer's pictureSusan Edsall

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan
A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

by Tim O'Brien

I just finished reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. I think it's the fourth or fifth time I've read it. Each time it feels entirely new, entirely brilliant. A perfect, perfect book. A book about the war, surely, but also about how you know if something's true, about the role of memory, about why stories matter. And for a writer, it's a book of enviable instruction on how to write something that illuminates, reminds, breaks your heart, and makes you laugh out loud.

I expect I will read this book many more times in the course of my life. I wonder if there will ever be a day when there is a better book to read. That would be incredible, and wonderful. But I'm not holding my breath.

Here's a sampling of how he writes about war:

“They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.”
“Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.”
“I survived, but it's not a happy ending.”
“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rusack. In the late afternoon, after a day's march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.”
“You’d be sitting at the top of a high hill, the flat paddies stretching out below, and the day would be calm and hot and utterly vacant, and you’d feel the boredom dripping inside you like a leaky faucet, except it wasn’t water, it was a sort of acid, and with each little droplet you’d feel the stuff eating away at important organs. You’d try to relax. You’d uncurl your fists and let your thoughts go. Well, you’d think, this isn’t so bad. And right then you’d hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you’d be squealing pig squeals. That kind of boredom.”

Here's how he writes about his loyalty to the truth:

“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”
“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”
“That's a true story that never happened.”
“And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”

Here is how he writes about memory:

“But the thing about remembering is that you don't forget.”
“Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now.”

And about why stories matter:

“But this too is true: stories can save us.”
“Stories are for 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.”

And his magnificent, crazy details that are story telling at its absolute finest:

“I remember Mitchell Sanders sitting quietly in the shade of an old banyan tree. He was using a thumbnail to pry off the body lice, working slowly, carefully depositing the lice in a blue USO envelope. His eyes were tired. It had been a long two weeks in the bush. After an hour or so he sealed up the envelope, wrote FREE in the upper right-hand corner, and addressed it to his draft board in Ohio.”

I doubt I will ever tire of returning to this book, rereading it each time with astonishment at all he achieved in writing it.

You can buy it at your local bookstore. And if they don't have it in stock, order it from them. Waiting five or six days to support your local bookstore is a small price to support that community resource. If, inexplicably, you have no local bookstore, you can order it online at:


About Susan Edsall

Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >




“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.”

E.M. Forster

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