The Big Read Blog (Archive)

A Look Back at "The Things They Carried"

March 22, 2010
Washington, DC

Tim O?Brien read to a capacity crowd in the NEA Poetry and Prose Pavilion at the 2009 National Book Festival in Washington, DC. Photo by Tom Roster

If you're following any of the literati or readerati on Twitter, you've probably noticed that today is the 20th anniversary of the publication of  Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. In my opinion, O'Brien's book is not just an enduring, powerful commentary on storytelling in the face of war, but also on storytelling in the face of life.  Last summer, I did a series of posts, which asked various Big Readers to answer the question---what things would you carry into battle? From the archives, here are some of those answers.

I hope you'll share your own lists through comments or send a note to

From Susan Chandler, Arts Midwest

I?d carry a photo of my daughter, husband, and me; and a small stone from Smooth Stone Beach on Lake Michigan, both of which would remind me of what?s good in the world.

From Susan Gregory, Pioneer Library System (Norman, Oklahoma)

A 1928 Book of Common Prayer that my dad gave me when I was eight; a large hunting knife (in case the prayers are taking too long); Mace (does it work on snakes?); photos of my son and my brother?s family; pens and notebooks; a mirror, to signal for help and to check for jaundice; Immodium A-D; Tootsie Rolls; toothbrush; St. Francis medal that my son brought me from Assisi; did I mention Immodium A-D?

From Victoria Hutter,  NEA 

My stash of special cards and letters especially the one my dad wrote to me when he couldn?t travel to my college graduation. The voice mail messages left by my niece and nephew that I keep resaving. A pair of special order pointe shoes circa 1983. Copy of Upright Hilda and the manuscript for Dexter the Dragon both by Donald Hutter. The beanbag frog that used to sit on the back of my grandmother?s reading chair. The stenciled Sucrets box she painted for me that used to hold my hair pins, barrettes, and rubberbands. And lots and lots of photos.

From Adam Kampe, NEA

Swedish fish.  As many packs of mint Stride as my pack could handle. A copy of Actual Air by David Berman to slow my mind down, a nano pod filled to the brim with podcasts to tune out the chaos, a copy of Chris Rock?s Rock This to keep me laughing all the way to the bank, a picture of the lake I practically grew up on, a picture of my family and best friends.

From Pepper Smith, NEA

I would bring assorted prayers from 1927 Book of Common Prayer, the Bible, AA Big Book, plus three pages of quotations on how to cope with fear.
Photos of my wife inside the Dalvey Pocket Compass she gave me.
The best toothbrush I can find.
Patagonia lightweight hiking socks.
Tiny Olympus Digital Voice Recorder
Encouraging letters from friends.
SAS Survival Guide
Hunting knife

From Amy Stolls, NEA

I?d carry a copy of the reader?s guide for everyone in my platoon, because it?s the best piece of writing currently in existence.

I?d carry tweezers and a tiny mirror that says ?you?re pretty.?  I have a fear of being out in a jungle and not being able to pluck my eyebrows.

My lap top, new Iphone, and probably a Kindle.  (In fact, I?m pretty sure the Kindle was developed for just this purpose.  It fits nicely slipped in behind a round of ammo.)

Literally (the obvious) ? a journal and pens, a few paperbacks, photos of loved ones, an audio of my seven-month-old giggling, an Ipod (with songs ranging from The Decemberists to Arvo Part to my dad?s banjo arrangements).

Literally (the not-so-obvious) ? a plastic coin showing Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet holding hands, which I?ve had since I was 3 or 4 years old and have kept ever since as my own personal good luck charm.  I sent it to my mom the day she was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago.  She?s currently in remission and thriving. 

Metaphorically (the obvious) ? my imagination and memory of every book, film, play, poem, painting, song, mountain, forest, café, meal, conversation, and personal encounter I?ve had that has made me feel human and lucky to be alive.

Metaphorically (the not-so-obvious) ? my invisible friend.  She?s been hibernating for about 40 years, but I bet I could convince her to go away with me.

This all, of course, on Day One.  What heavy burdens I?d end up carrying all the days after I can only imagine (in part thanks to O?Brien)    

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