As an English major, I am lucky that most of my classes require me to read really good books. A few weeks before this semester, I stumbled upon a class called “Memoir and Social Crisis.” The professor was well liked and it fit into my schedule, so I enrolled. As the weeks go by, the assigned texts have become permanently stacked on my nightstand and I find myself staying up late into the night because I simply can’t stop reading. What I’ve discovered is that I personally cannot get enough of memoirs because to me, they are the lifeblood of literature.
If there were one memoir I would recommend to anyone, it would be “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. According to the author, this work is fiction, but that in no way discredits the reasons why I love it so much or why I think everyone should read it. “The Things They Carried” is a book that most students have encountered in a high school English class. Because it’s about O’Brien’s experience serving in the Vietnam War, the book is heavy (almost painfully) and not for people looking for a neat, fast-paced plot or steamy romance story. In high school, I can shamefully admit that I remember using SparkNotes to know enough of the plot to pass weekly quizzes. That was that. I never even opened it.
I read “The Things They Carried” over the summer during a six-week program called the New England Literature Program. It was a book that I chose to read in addition to assigned texts like Emily Dickinson or Thoreau, and I can honestly say that late in the night I could be found in my sleeping bag, headlight dimmed low, reading “The Things They Carried.” I kept thinking how much of a fool I was for not reading the book back in high school. At the same time, I wasn’t ready for it. During NELP, my boyfriend was serving his second tour in Afghanistan. As I was studying classic New England Literature in the middle of the woods, he was fighting in a war. The book was something that I carried in my own backpack, up into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, to Acadia National Park in Maine, and along the shores of Lake Winnipesauke. Because I knew nothing about the war my boyfriend was fighting, I turned to O’Brien and learned about his. I read about soldiers, their hopes and moments of courage, their cruelty. I positioned myself so O’Brien was talking to me, telling me how war is hell and there is no moral, so stop looking for one.
I cannot put to words what “The Things They Carried” has meant to me over the past year. Re-reading it for “Memoir and Social Crisis” has proved to be equally as rewarding as it was at NELP, even though my boyfriend is back in the U.S. and I’m no longer out in the woods. The lessons have stayed. Even if my own circumstances have caused me to place this book in my permanent “back pocket,” everyone who writes should read this book. O’Brien wrote to save others and to save himself. I write to navigate the complexity of college, to keep my head from going under. When college is over, what will remain will be what was written. Everyday that motivated me to put my stories on paper. That way, other people can carry them with me.
–Hannah Bates, Junior, English major, Xylem Editing chair