Book Box: The Things They Carried
September born authors give way to a banned book.
I planned to bring you a happy medley of September reads this week - books like The Scarlet Pimpernel, And Then They Were None, Where the Sidewalk Ends and House of Sand and Fog, all written by September-born authors.
Then I re-read The Things They Carried.
This collection of short stories goes back to the Vietnam War, following the author Tim O’Brien, who flies half away across the world, to fight a deadly and desperate war.
The title story is a list — of the things the young soldiers carried.
A catalogue, and it's heart-rending. I read into the night, feeling the weight of the military rucksacks the soldiers carried, their rations, their guns, their cartridges, grenades, and their little knick-knacks, the photographs, pebbles and rabbit paws they carried to help them feel alive. And then the other things.
“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing--these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice... Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.”
The morning after, we talk about these stories — a class of management students and I. We talk about the power of objects to tell stories. About the objects themselves, the pebble, the photographs, the comic books, the food, the dope.
We talk about the things we carry, with us, in our bags, and how these things tell a story about our character.
“Kiowa always took along his New Testament and a pair of moccasins for silence. Dave Jensen carried night-sight vitamins high in carotene. Lee Strunk carried his slingshot; ammo, he claimed, would never be a problem. Rat Kiley carried brandy and M&M's candy. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried the starlight scope, which weighed 6.3 pounds with its aluminum carrying case. Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend's pantyhose wrapped around his neck as a comforter.”
How our setting, is the things around us and we carry it, maybe unconsciously.
“They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it.”
And how our stories become more powerful as they fit into the larger web of stories in our culture. The Things They Carried echoes other war narratives, like the stories from Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan in Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich, and in films like American Sniper. It uses objects to tell stories, like A History of the World in 100 Objects does, or like Remnants of a Separation does.
This past week has been Banned Books Week, a time to read The Things They Carried published in 1990, and banned in many parts of the US. We talk about the irony of banning books like these, even as the wars continue.
Finally, we put cerebral analysis aside.
“What did you feel?” I ask them
They are quiet for a long moment.
Then the voices come in, slowly and then faster and faster.
“How unfair is it to be sent to die like this”
“These boys, they were the same age as we are now”
And then it’s 9.50 am and time to go our separate ways. And all I am thinking, as I go through the day, is of the things the young soldiers carried, and the things we all carry.
And of Tim O’Brien’s words from the book,
“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.”
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed are personal