Note: This post about The Things They Carried was written while I was filled with a lot of passion and wasn’t written from an objective perspective. After reading through it again, I know there are spots where I let my feelings speak more than they ought. I’m not changing what I’ve previously written, however, I added four sections towards the end based on a comment I received after someone read this very article.
I would love to hear more of your comments and thoughts about this book. Please either leave a comment at the end of the post or send me a message, and I will respond.
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High School Horrors
The first time I read The Things They Carried, I was seventeen and a junior in high school. It was for an American Literature class that I was able to earn college credit for. That year I learned about American history in my Advanced Placement United States History class and the cultural shifts in my American Literature class. I remember that class being really cool to see history from a facts and numbers point of view and to jump into the cultural aspect by reading a book.
When we started the unit about the Vietnam War, this is the book we started in my English class. I hated reading this book and any other books assigned for class. None of the books were relevant to me and I didn’t want to read any of the books. If the only exposure I had to books was from my high school English classes, I wouldn’t have read a book after high school. I didn’t like reading any of the books they assigned. Occasionally I liked dissecting the book afterward and some of the activities but always hated the actual reading part. I love fantasy or books set in the medieval age with knights and strong women.
I Hated The Things They Carried at Seventeen
The Things They Carried is not about a young woman running away to become a knight. Nor is it about mythical beasts or magic. Instead, it is about a young man’s experiences fighting a war in Vietnam. It is full of tales of walking through rice patties hoping you don’t step on a land mine. There are accounts of men fantasizing about what to do when the war is over. It is a work of fiction, but it reads like a memoir and a loose collection of short stories and disjointed events. The Things They Carried is not a cohesive novel with an arc, and it doesn’t read like a typical story. That being said, I hate it.
Yep, I’m going to say that again and embrace it. I hate this book. Not very many books make me say that about very many of them, but this one stuck with me. I remember it having terrible language, lots of graphic scenes from the war, and not being my cup of tea.
Having Second Thoughts
Later in college, this book got brought up a couple of times. I decided that maybe The Things They Carried couldn’t be nearly as bad I remembered it. Right? So maybe, now with my higher learning and appreciation for literature, I would like The Things They Carried. Maybe, I would even rant and rave about it, like my high school teacher used to.
I forgot about my desire to read the book for a time until I joined a couple of Facebook groups dedicated to books. A couple of people were talking it up and saying how good it was. Also, it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize which is like a Nobel Prize for books! So I decided that I probably really should read it again. But, I put it off yet again because of terrible memories and having plenty of other books to fill my time.
I Finally Read it Again… Well, started.
So fast-forward to a few months ago. I received a text from my mom asking which book my younger sisters should read in their high school literature class. Guess what… The Things They Carried was on that list. I obviously did not recommend it, but I also checked it out from the library. I wanted to actually reread it and have a better reason than “I hated it in high school.”
I’ve had this book for about two months and only read 70 pages out of 260. I would read a little bit. Then put it on pause and read about 5 other books before talking myself into reading a few more pages. At this point, I’ve decided to give up reading it and stop torturing myself with a book I don’t like and probably never will.
Reasons Why I Still Hate The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried is even worse than I remembered it from High School! In the first 70 pages, the f-word occurs seven times plus fifteen other uses of profanity. Yes, students hear language like this on a daily basis walking the halls of a high school, but it is also against the rules and can get individuals in detention. If you could get in trouble for reading your school book out loud in the hallways, it probably shouldn’t be taught at school either.
This book has a lot of very graphic scenes in it as well. Things I don’t want in my head as an adult, let alone when I was seventeen. In the first 70 pages, there are multiple graphic deaths from a gunshot wound and a land mine. These death scenes had very detailed descriptions of the individuals, and it isn’t pretty. Plus, some very gruesome descriptions of working at a meatpacking plant as a “de-clotter,” an individual who sprays aged pig corpses with a high-powered hose to remove blood clots. This sounds terrible, but the way the meat plant was described is more graphic and gag-inducing than the war scenes.
Another thing that turned me off of this book was the adult content. None of it is explicit, however, there are plenty of innuendos. There are a few short sentences scattered throughout about soldiers on leave spending the weekend in bed. Or in another instance, they are stuck out in the middle of nowhere, wishing they were spending time in bed. In either case, I don’t want to know about it. Especially, as a seventeen-year-old.
A Semi-Redeeming Quote to Show Off the Writing Style
Why Teachers Still Teach It
Now that I’m a little older, and know more about literature, I appreciate how beautiful the writing is. I really enjoyed some of the parts of the book, but it was the writing style than the content. Stylistically it is beautiful! There are many themes and motifs woven through. Plus, the whole vignette and jumping around on the timeline is done very well. It may not be the typical timeline type of book, but the pieces he places where he does is a work of art. That is the only redeeming thing about this book, and why a teacher might consider teaching this to a class of high schoolers. This book was written for adults, not teens, and it isn’t appropriate for mature teenagers.
Better Alternatives to The Things They Carried
There are many other beautifully written books without bad content. Three books come to mind. None of these are focused on the Vietnam War, but they are similar stylistically to The Things They Carried. These books are To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and Gilead also by Marilynne Robinson.
Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 and a National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. So essentially it is a really good book. There is slim to no language. I can’t remember any adult content and slim to no graphic content. Instead, it is about spiritual battles and the connections that happen between generations. Some teachers may feel like they are opening up a whole new can of worms by introducing religion into the mix. Honestly, I prefer a book with a little religion any day over a gritty war scene where someone blows up a puppy for fun. (Yes, that does happen in The Things They Carried. I couldn’t believe it when I read it either.)
Additional Thoughts about The Things They Carried
An individual recently reached out to me with the opinion that The Things They Carried should be required reading for any voter prior to casting their first vote. This individual has been in the middle of a war zone multiple times. They made some very compelling points about how many of the high schoolers reading this book about war will be in the middle of a war zone very soon. They also wanted teenagers and adults to understand the “physical and emotional catastrophe there’re in for” when those in power call for “boots on the ground.”
The individual made a very compelling argument. These high schoolers will be voting in the next year or two for the politicians making these decisions, and voters should be informed of the consequences. They need to know what kind of situation they are asking their friends, family, and other peers to go into, and what those loved ones will face.
Fiction vs Reality
When I read this as a sixteen-year-old I didn’t make that connection between the world of a book and reality. That may have been the fault of my teacher or my own naivety. I think books are a great place to explore hard things and can lead to great discussions and self-reflection about difficult topics like war.
However, I worry about the harm of such an exposure too and I feel like this is a personal choice that each parent and child have to come to together. Reading a book about war has a similar effect on the brain as physically experiencing such things. Obviously, it isn’t the exact same but the brain cannot tell the difference between something happening in a book and something happening in reality.
The Price of Understanding
Do I want them to understand how terrible war is? Yes. I want them to understand what it means to be at war. These future voters should understand what those weapons are capable of and the consequences of their votes. They need to understand how those votes impact the lives of millions of people. It impacts those who are currently serving, those who have in the past, and those who didn’t come home.
However, that understanding comes with a price. I want the mental and emotional scarring, and maturity that comes with learning, to be a choice and not something thrust upon the reader or required. That sounds naive and childish, but we are talking about children who are turning into adults.
I believe that every experience we go through, every book read, every YouTube video watched, irrevocably changes us into someone new. We are different because of the new information and new experiences, even if those are fictional experiences. I give my recommendations and insights to allow each of you to make a more informed decision about the books you read. Some of the books I’ve read have given me invisible scarring. Is it the same as actually going to war and coming home changed? No, but I want each of you to have the choices that I didn’t.
So long story extremely short, I do not recommend this book to anyone under the age of eighteen. I do not think this book should be taught in a high school period mainly because it was not written for a teenage audience. Even if it is a college-level course, there are better books to introduce literature to teens without the language and violence found in this book. However, I also understand the reason why teachers and educators teach this and the impact they hope it to have. I don’t think this should be required reading, and if taught, should be with parental approval.
If you liked this book you may also enjoy How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child. It is the true story of Sandra Uwiringiyimana who grew up in the middle of a war zone prior to migrating to the United States. Another you might like is The Good Soldiers by Dave Finkel. I have not personally read the second book but I think it would be a good fit.
A Note to Parents and Teachers
Parents and teachers of high school students, if you are having a hard time finding age-appropriate books that are engaging, please reach out to me. I took a class at BYU specifically about teen and young adult literature. We discussed and how to choose books to read in a group setting. The books we read had hard topics in them but the books came at them in an age-appropriate way because they were written for teens. I can think of ten books off the top of my head that would be better to use and still have hard conversations.
I’ll try to cover more about this topic in a later post but reach out to me with questions about books, lesson plans, discussion questions, or if you want to share your experiences with The Things They Carried. Until next time!