The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Burden of Remembering

Tim O’Brien. © Marion Ettlinger, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin

In honor of Memorial Day, we're focusing today's post on Big Read author Tim O’Brien, a veteran of the Vietnam War. His experience as a solider is a subject he has returned to again and again in his writing, and his novel about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The book is a collection of related stories about a platoon of infantryman, one of whom is a character named Tim O'Brien. Some stories are about their wartime experiences in Vietnam; others are about a 43-year-old writer, again named Tim O'Brien, as he remembers his platoon's experiences and writes stories about them. It’s a work of fiction presented as a memoir, and it’s one that differentiates between what is truth and what is fact.

“Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. 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 now. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."

So, The Things They Carried is only in part a book about the Vietnam War; it's also a book about the power of stories in our lives. According to Rhodes Scholar and West Point graduate Craig Mullaney,  who served in Afghanistan as an Army officer, it’s the “story-truth” employed by O’Brien that makes the reader understand the enormity of war and the extraordinary burden that soldiers assume in combat and carry home with them. [3:19]



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