According to a commenter over at Toasted Cheese:
There’s a line in the movie, Norma Rae, where the character played by Sally Field is talking to the union organizer as he is unpacking his things in a motel room. She says, “Why do you have so many books?” He answers, “Because I have an unnatural fear of being somewhere without something to read.”
Guilty as charged. I must have a book or magazine or something to read with me at all times. The idea of sitting somewhere without reading material terrifies me. How would I fill the time? What would I think about? What would I do? Sitting at the doctor’s office, waiting for the doctor, I simply cannot just sit there and wait. I would go crazy with boredom, my mind would be filled with this and with that. I’d start obsessing about things going on at work or at home. Ah, but, give me a book or a magazine and I’m OK.
I had a doctor’s appointment this afternoon and forgot to bring my current reading material with me. Fortunately, I have a stack of books on the window sill in my office. There I found The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, a collection of short stories that really tell a larger story. The book is described as a work of fiction, but the stories seem so clearly based on the author’s experiences as a veteran of the Vietnam War that the reader can’t tell what’s true and what’s fiction and that’s part of what makes the stories so real and compelling. There are pieces in this collection that are masterpieces of short fiction.
I took the book with me and took a trip down memory lane. I no longer remember exactly when I read the book the first time, but I think it was in 2006 or 2007. What I remember exactly is how blown away I was by the very first story. The title story. The Things They Carried. It is pretty simply the best piece of short fiction I will ever read. It is about the things soldiers carried with them — both physical and non-physical. Here is one long, uninterrupted paragraph from the story that gives you a peek at O’Brien’s talent:
They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statutes of the smiling Buddha, candles, grease pencils, The Stars and Stripes, fingernail clippers, Psy Ops leaflets, bush hats, bolos, and much more. Twice a week, when the resupply choppers came in, they carried hot chow in green mermite cans and large canvas bags filled with iced beer and soda pop. They carried plastic water containers, each with a 2-gallon capacity. Mitchell Sanders carried a set of starched tiger fatigues for special occasions. Henry Dobbins carried Black Flag insecticide. Dave Jensen carried empty sandbags that could be filled at night for added protection. Lee Strunk carried tanning lotion. Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among the malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself — Vietnam, the place, the soil — a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. 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. They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility. Their principles were in their feet. Their calculations were biological. They had no sense of strategy or mission. They searched the villages without knowing what to look for, not caring, kicking over jars of rice, frisking children and old men, blowing tunnels, sometimes setting fires and sometimes not, then forming up and moving on to the next village, then other villages, where it would always be the same. They carried their own lives. The pressures were enormous. In the heat of early afternoon, they would remove their helmets and flak jackets, walking bare, which was dangerous but which helped ease the strain. They would often discard things along the route of march. Purely for comfort, they would throw away rations, blow their Claymores and grenades, no matter, because by nightfall the resupply choppers would arrive with more of the same, then a day or two later still more, fresh watermelons and crates of ammunition and sunglasses and woolen sweaters — the resources were stunning — sparkles for the Fourth of July, colored eggs for Easter — it was the great American war chest — the fruits of science, the smokestacks, the canneries, the arsenals of Hartford, the Minnesota forests, the machine shops, the vast fields of corn and wheat — they carried like freight trains; they carried on their backs and shoulders — and for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.
There are so many things I love about this paragraph. So many rules broken in the writing of it and so much that fills it. In some respects, it tells the entire story of Vietnam and its soldiers, but it is only three pages in the middle of a 27-page story that just keeps getting better and better. This story is what compelled me to continue with writing short stories because it is possible to capture lightning in a bottle with a short piece of fiction. That’s my goal with my writing. Lightning in a bottle. It’s a high standard and it’s probably the single biggest reason my writing output has slowed down in the last couple of years.
There are, of course, other stories in The Things They Carried. In two different writing workshops I’ve participated in, one of those stories, On the Rainy River, has been held out as a classic example of a great short story. I remember reading it way back when and loving the story, but I didn’t realize just how incredible it was until those workshop discussions.
The Things They Carried won France’s prestigious Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize. It was also a finalist for a Pulitzer Price and the National Book Critics Circle Award. If you are a writer and haven’t read it yet, you must. If you aren’t a writer, but love short stories, well written and which hit you right in the core, read it.
This is why I am terrified of not having a book to read. Because these are the moments for which I read. The discoveries of great words and stories. Without them, my life would simply not be what it is now. I’d be less of a human being without the stories I have read over the years.
Now I need to go back and finish reading the book, and figure out a way to meet my objective of capturing that lightning.