With 99 days left until the election, let us continue looking at 100 books every American should read. These write-ups will be short and not incredibly comprehensive looks at some books and novels that will help you become a better citizen.
A couple of years ago, I went on vacation with my wife and mother-in-law to New Orleans.
There’s a lot to do in the Big Easy, but one thing I didn’t want to miss out on was the literary history. I’m not sure any city – save maybe Boston – has been home to so many great American writers.
William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Michael Lewis, Elmore Leonard, John Kennedy Toole, Kate Chopin, and Walker Isaacson all called New Orleans home at certain points. Eudora Welty and Ernest Hemingway spent time writing there.
So one day I wandered the city, looking for landmarks and places. As the hours moved on, I also started checking out the bookshops.
As I walked into one, I held the door for a friendly, angular looking man. He said thanks, I nodded and muttered “No problem, sir.”
Inside the shop we’re autographed copies of “The Things They Carried.”
I smiled at the woman near the table, Oh, that’s one of my favorite books, I said. They’re really autographed, I asked.
The woman laughed. Sir, she said, that man you held the door for was Tim O’Brien.
I turned around, burst out the door and looked everywhere. I couldn’t find him.
He was gone. My shoulders slumped as I went back in to buy a signed edition.
At that point in my life, if you told me I could have met any living American writer, I would have had a hard time choosing between O’Brien and Harper Lee.
I was introduced to O’Brien in a college English class. We were required to read one of his lesser known novels. I was reading it when my friend Chris said, “Oh, you have to read ‘The Things They Carried’.”
I couldn’t imagine a better novel than the one I was reading. But, yeah, “Carried” was better.
Part truth, part fiction, “Carried” tells the story of some soldiers during Vietnam.
If you’re at all knowledgeable about literature, you’re aware that war has an effect on the writers it produces. Anyone can see the brutality and technology of World War I, affecting the humanity in writings of Hemingway, Tolkien, and others.
Well, the causes of the war in Vietnam have affected many of the writers that came home.
“Carried” deals a lot with truth and imagination. It hits on the physical and metaphysical.
And the writing is strikingly beautiful.
“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.”The Things They Carried
He hits you right in the gut at the start and keeps pounding away.
“In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human concord, things you never knew you wanted. There is a kind of largeness to it, a kind of godliness. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.”The Things They Carried
I’ve never been to war. Likely, you have not either. A lessening number of Americans now go to war. We put that heavy burden on a much smaller population that my father’s generation did. In some ways, that has perverted the way we look at military sacrifice.
O’Brien doesn’t coat himself – or the average soldier – in righteousness. Just humanity. And he makes us question everything.
We need that in America right now.
We need to know those who serve so that we make better decisions about how to support them.
They can’t just be people we pass in the street and say “Thank you for your service” to because they have a hat with a specific aircraft carrier on it.