The Things They Carried: Book summary and reviews of The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried

by Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien X
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
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Book Summary

A classic work of American literature that has not stopped changing minds and lives since it burst onto the literary scene, The Things They Carried is a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O'Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three.

Taught everywhere - from high school classrooms to graduate seminars in creative writing - it has become required reading for any American and continues to challenge readers in their perceptions of fact and fiction, war and peace, courage and fear and longing.

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In the title story, soldiers carry things both tangible and intangible.  Which do you think were heavier? Which items spoke most powerfully to you?  Did any surprise you? What do you think specific items might reveal about the individuals carrying them and the experience of going to war? What do you carry around with you every day, materially and emotionally? If you had to go to war, what might you take with you?
  2. In what ways do you feel a soldier's experience of war is different today than it was during the Vietnam era?
  3. Although The Things They Carried is a work of fiction, why do you think that the author chose to disguise the book as memoir? What impact do you think this choice had on you as a reader? How do you think...

You can see the full discussion here. This discussion will contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about The Things They Carried:

According to O'Brien, what responsibilities does—or should—the storyteller bear? Do you agree with him?
I think the storytellers responsibility, is to engage the reader. If that includes adding details that make the story more interesting, then go ahead and add them, but I think the storyteller must also be honest and let the reader know that there ... - beckys

Do you consider the narrator(s) in the book reliable? Do you think anyone's point of view is omitted from the book, and if so, what might we infer from their absence?
Even though the book is listed as fiction, I felt there had to be a basis in fact. If the author didn't "live" events, it seems to me that he most certainly was told about them, either while he was in Vietnam or after he returned home, either ... - BuffaloGirl

Does there seem to be a clear sense of what is right and what is wrong throughout the book?
No there wasn't..that was one of the big problems of the Vietnam War is that the idea you were raised with of what is right, wasnt what you were told to do when you were at war. Such a conflict of ideas and total discourse with the inherent urge to... - beckys

Following O'Brien's instructions in "How to Tell a War Story", can we say whether O'Brien's own stories are "true war stories"?
Yes they are true war stories. Perhaps not factual. - normar

How do the stories in this collection compare to other "war stories" you have read? Why do you think O'Brien says that the stories he tells are love stories and not war stories?
It’s been a very long time since I read this but remember how much it affected me. I was still reeling from all of the reports about the Viet Nam that was going on at that time. - sandrah

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Media Reviews

"The best of these stories...tell us not where we were but where we are, and perhaps where we will be...It is an ultimate, indelible image of war in our time, and in time to come" - Los Angeles Times

"The Things They Carried is as good as any piece of literature can get ... It is controlled and wild, deep and tough, perceptive and shrewd." - Chicago Sun Times

"With The Things They Carried, Mr. O'Brien has written a vital, important book--a book that matters not only to the reader interested in Vietnam, but to anyone interested in the craft of writing as well." - New York Times, "Books of the Century"

"By moving beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear, by questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of truth, he places The Things They Carried high up on the list of best fiction about any war." - New York Times Book Review

"Tim O'Brien is the best American writer of his generation." - San Francisco Examiner

"The integrity of a novel and the immediacy of an autobiography ... O'Brien's absorbing narrative moves in circles; events are recalled and retold again and again, giving us a deep sense of the fluidity of truth and the dance of memory." - The New Yorker

"Rendered with an evocative, quiet precision, not equaled in the imaginative literature of the American war in Vietnam...O'Brien has it just right." - Washington Post

"Powerful ... Composed in the same lean, vigorous style as his earlier books, The Things They Carried adds up to a captivating account of the experiences of an infantry company in Vietnam... . Evocative and haunting, the raw force of confession."- Wall Street Journal

"O'Brien has written a book so searing and immediate you can almost hear the choppers in the background...The Things They Carried leaves third-degree burns. Between its rhythmic brilliance and its exquisite rendering of memory...this is prose headed for the nerve center of what was Vietnam."--The Boston Globe

"Simply marvelous ... A striking sequence of stories that twist and turn and bounce off each other...O'Brien has invented a tone of voice precisely suited to this war...Wars seldom produce good short stories, but two or three of these seem as good as any short stories written about any war...Immensely affecting." - Newsweek

"Consummate artistry ... A strongly unified book, a series of glimpses, through different facets, of a single, mysterious, deadly stone ... O'Brien blends diverse incidents, voices, and genres, indelibly rendering the nightmarish impact of the Vietnam experience."- Philadelphia Inquirer

"O'Brien has brought us another remarkable piece of work ... The stories have a specificity of observed physical detail that makes them seem a model of the realist's art"- Miami Herald

"O'Brien's stunning new book of linked stories, The Things They Carried, is about the power of the imagination...Nobody else can make me feel, as his three Vietnam books have, what I imagine to have been the reality of that war."- USA Today

"I've got to make you read this book... In a world filled too often with numbness, or shifting values, these stories shine in a strange and opposite direction, moving against the flow, illuminating life's wonder, life's tenuousness, life's importance."- Dallas Morning News

"O'Brien succeeds as well as any writer in conveying the free-fall sensation of fear and the surrealism of combat." - Time

"Throughout, it is incredibly ordinary, human stuff-that's why this book is extra-ordinary... . Each story resonates with its predecessors, yet stands alone. The soft blurs with the hard. The gore and terror of Vietnam jungle warfare accumulate into an enormous mass." - Houston Chronicle

"Just by imagining stories that never happened, and embroidering upon some that did, O'Brien can bring it all back. He can feel the terror and the sorrow and the crazy, jagged laughter. He can bring the dead back to life. And bring back the dreaming, too." - Entertainment Weekly

"His characters and his situations are unique and ring true to the point of tears. His prose is simply magnificent... . Unforgettable ."- Minneapolis Star Tribune

"A powerful yet lyrical work of fiction." - The Associated Press

"O'Brien's new master work. .. . Go out and get this book and read it. Read it slowly, and let O'Brien's masterful storytelling and his eloquent philosophizing about the nature of war wash over you... . The Things They Carried is a major work of literary imagination." - The Veteran

"O'Brien's meditations--on war and memory, on darkness and light--suffuse the entire work with a kind of poetic form, making for a highly original, fully realized novel... . Beautifully honest ... The book is persuasive in its desperate hope that stories can save us." - Publishers Weekly

"The prose ranges from staccato soldierly thoughts to raw depictions of violent death to intense personal ruminations by the author that don't appear to be fictional at all. Just when you thought there was nothing left to say about the Vietnam experience ... there's plenty." - Booklist

"Brilliant... O'Brien again shows his literary stuff... . An acutely painful reading experience, this collection should be read as a book and not a mere collection of stories. Not since Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five has the American soldier been portrayed with such poignance and sincerity." - Library Journal

This information about The Things They Carried was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

Write your own review


Iconic Expression of Vietnam War Experience
I have heard over the years that this book was the iconic expression of the American soldier's experience in the Vietnam War. After reading it, I can understand that belief. Reading the book left me feeling flat and depressed from the loss of life and innocence and pride that these young men and our country suffered in a war that no one understood. Almost all of the stories are heartbreaking.

kathryn cowan

The things they carried
Heart wrenching, yet beautiful personal accounts (in 3rd person) of men in war. It's so riveting and a rewarding read for all of us.


I have been meaning to read this book for years, so I was happy to get the chance to do so here. I have not finished it yet. Once the pandemic hit, I found I needed lighter reading at the end of the day. However, what I have read so far is powerful and feels very real. This is a book that will stay with me.


sadly real
Never having read a book about war, I had no preconceived ideas. However, as a psychiatric nurse, I was very interested in the behaviors of characters in this story. I have not forgotten this book and will probably read it again. It is haunting and unforgetable.

Tired Bookreader

Can you ever forget?
This book was read in its entirety two weeks ago and yet it remains on my mind everyday. Part of the reason is that there are some personal feelings of empathy having had a family member involved in this war. I have always wondered about this conflict because I haven't been able to get anyone I know that participated to give up any stories other than stark fear.

Our young men should never have been sent to a land without the government knowing what to expect. And who suffered for this disaster? The government that created the mess? No The poor men and women who were involved and then vilified upon their return...if they were lucky enough to return.

Every person involved with any such decision should read this book. Lots to think about.

kate baldwin

The Things They Carried
I loved the book. Friends went to Vietnam and died there. I have always felt that my mind would not have survived Vietnam, and after reading this book, I know it wouldn't have survived. I so admire Tim O'Brien's writing and the courage it took to share himself so clearly. I am in awe of the boys and young men who went, and I want to hold each of them. I am so thankful that I read this book.

...1 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Tim O'Brien Author Biography

Photo: Timmy O'Brien

Tim O'Brien was born in Austin, Minnesota October 1, 1946. When he was ten, his family, including a younger sister and brother, moved to Worthington, also in southern Minnesota. O'Brien earned his BA in 1968 in Political Science from Macalester College, where he was student body president. That same year he was drafted into the United States Army and was sent to Vietnam, where he served from 1969 to 1970 in 3rd Platoon, Company A, 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment. Upon completing his tour of duty O'Brien went to graduate school at Harvard University, and afterward received an internship at the Washington Post.

O' Brien is the author of a critically acclaimed collection of short stories, The Things They Carried. He is also known for his work, Going After Cacciato, that won ...

... Full Biography
Author Interview

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