The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien

I always feel a bit self-conscious about recommending books that I REALLY like. What if you don’t like it as much as I did? What if you don’t understand why I like it so much I keep reading it over and over?

But there’s so much to love about this book. On the surface, it is a collection of short stories about Tim O’Brien’s time as a foot soldier in Vietnam. But. BUT. To say that The Things They Carried is about Vietnam is like saying that “War and Peace” is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. It is. But it is also so much more.

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It is a lesson in storytelling. The chapters are short stories that can be read individually. The same characters keep appearing in the book, and sometimes one chapter refers to something that happened in a previous one, but you can skip.

This structure of self-sufficient chapters creates a mind-blowing narrative of interweaving stories that get dropped and then picked up again, of characters that change before you know what caused the change. O’Brien does this fabulous thing of showing you how things change before he tells you why they changed – you learn that someone died, but you don’t know how, or when.

Getting to know the characters in this book is a bit like getting to know people in life – you don’t get their entire life story in one convenient ‘background story’ bloc, you have to wait until they tell you. And sometimes the things they tell you don’t make sense or are not quite the truth. But they are always completely honest.

And the way O’Brien writes, his style, is mind-blowing. If a fairy godmother appeared and gave me one wish, it would be to write like him. There are sentences in this book that will break your heart and others that will put it together again.

Like this one. “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

This book will teach you how to tell a story. But a lot of books do that. This book also tells you how to listen to a story.

It teaches you that sometimes, the truth is the least important ingredient of a story. It just needs to be real. And that’s what this book does throughout.

Not all of what it talks about happened. But all of it is real. And this book makes you understand that those two things are very different.

As Tim O’Brien says – “Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”

And finally – this book also tells you why stories are so important. Why, all throughout history, humans have been telling each other stories. It’s what makes us human, more than anything else. And Tim O’Brien tells us why.

“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. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”


I wish I could read this book again for the first time. Because when I did, it changed me.

The good news is that you don’t have to buy the book – some of the chapters were published as stand-alone short stories and are available online.

Like my absolutely favorite chapter of this book – ‘How To Tell A True War Story‘. You can read it here – All the chapters are amazing, but this one is my personal favorite. I must have read it two dozen times by now. Go read it.

And next week – we’re back in the thick of it, and this time we’re pondering the question whether there’s a better way to use data in our modern world. With the Facebook Data breaches, this question is probably more urgent than ever, right?





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