Reading as a Collective Experience

For the past two years, Everett Public Library has partnered with Sno-Isle Libraries to bring The Big Read to all of Snohomish and Island counties. The Big Read is an example of an extremely far-reaching program designed to bring the book back into the cultural center of American life.


This month, I had the privilege of reading Gary Mack’s Mind Gym with my roller derby team. My team is ranked 7th in the West and will be competing at the upcoming regional tournament for an even higher ranking. So in addition to physical training, we have also chosen to prepare our minds to be competitive at a higher level.

Mind Gym isn’t a book that has broad appeal, but it’s a book that is bringing my team and coaches together in ways that simply training for a sport wouldn’t. We discuss the things in the book that inspire each of us and make suggestions from the book to others. This dialogue, in turn, informs the way we play.

Everett Public Library has books like this available in sets for you to use, too. We continuously nurture our Book Group Set collection so that it stays fresh. You can choose from over 60 titles, with about equal selection of fiction and non-fiction. Even if you don’t belong to a formal book group, you may have a circle of friends that would enjoy reading one of these titles together. Reading is immensely enjoyable as an individual experience, but it can also be an experience that you share with your communities, large and small.

In 2011, the library would like to bring a more personalized, local community reading experience to Everett. What would you like to read? What would you like to read with your friends, neighbors, colleagues, and family? Please take a minute to fill out our poll and let us know.


Timeless Relevance and Great Craft

There’s a saying in libraries, “Every book, its reader.”* Indeed, every piece of writing is a unique experience for each reader. For me, the beauty of The Things They Carried is its humanity. Tim O’Brien conveys the intensity and subtlety of those who experience war first-hand with powerful descriptions of what lies beyond death counts and political decisions.

Several passages from this book will stick with me for a very long time, such as,

“And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains to do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen” (p. 85). 

This book is exquisitely crafted, expressing at once such depth, beauty, and terror. To write a war story in this way is a great artistic feat and a profound tribute to the service and courage of those who endure the most grueling of circumstances. 


* Ranganathan, S.R., The Five Laws of Library Science, Bombay: Asia Pub. House, 1963.

The Seemingness of War

Stories of WarThe subject of narrative truthfulness has come up frequently in my recent reading, and last week I was surprised to find it again as a central theme in Tim O’Brien’s novel about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried. The traumatic experiences endured by the members of Alpha Company defy resolution, as they replay themselves again and again in the minds of the soldiers, and become warped or embellished as the men try to relate to others the intensities of fear, anxiety, and carnage. In his chapter “How to Tell a War Story” O’Brien says:

In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then you look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.

Storytelling is also a way the soldiers pass time (they even scold one another on their storytelling styles), and the more improbable stories can take on the qualities of urban legend. O’Brien describes Rat Kiley’s “reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts”:

It wasn’t a question of deceit. Just the opposite: he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt. For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe.

Fiction about war goes well beyond daily news reports and fatality statistics, gaining power through its ability to present psychological and emotional truths that best represent the author’s experiences. O’Brien’s book does so powerfully and memorably. Please join us in reading The Things They Carried, and in attending related book discussions and other events as part of our month-long Big Read program running throughout the month of May.



The Things They Carried, the Big Read book in May, is a novel that brings back memories.  While I wasn’t around to participate in the events of the Vietnam War era directly, the legacy of the war and especially the protests against it had a large impact on the city where I spent many of my formative years: Madison, Wisconsin. 

If you have spent any time in Madison, you know that it has a reputation for being a home to radical and alternative ideas. One of the monikers attached to the city, Mad-Town, says it all. A major reason for this is the fact that Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin at Madison which has a continual influx of academics and students who aren’t shy about expressing their beliefs, orthodox or not. 

Not surprisingly, during the late 60s and early 70s UW-Madison was a hotbed of protest and opposition to the Vietnam War. A NOVA documentary, Two Days in October, based on the book They Marched into Sunlight, artfully recreates this time and the people who lived through it by recording the events in Vietnam and on the campus of the UW-Madison over the course of the same two days in 1967. 

After the war and the protests were long over, the central conflict between those who decided to go to Vietnam and those who did not still haunted the campus. One of O’Brien’s stories, “On the Rainy River,” captures the agonizing decision many men had to make and how they, and society, judged them for it. 

In many of the lectures I attended my instructors were clearly still grappling with the decision they had made about Vietnam all those years ago. It is this memory, or perhaps it is a story as O’Brien suggests, of a personal decision having such a powerful effect on a whole generation that came back to me when reading The Things They Carried




Cigarettes were the Agent Orange you paid for. –Sully (Hearts in Atlantis)

The Things They Carried is widely hailed as one of the finest books about the Vietnam War. Sometimes poignant war stories sneak up on you, where you least expect them.

I recently picked up Stephen King’s Hearts in Atlantis due to a recommendation I heard months ago, from none other than Seattle’s favorite reader, Nancy Pearl. I remembered her saying that Hearts in Atlantis was terrifying because of the way the terror slowly reveals itself. Though I had previously really enjoyed Stephen King’s books, I hadn’t read one in years. Pearl’s description made me want to check in with King again.

Hearts in Atlantis is a book that, strangely, complements O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. In these two books, King and O’Brien are telling a story of survival, lost innocence, and a war’s interminable legacy. And in their own way, both books are a little fantastical. In Hearts in Atlantis, King brings in his penchant for terror early in his protagonists’ lives, long before they ever go to war. He then uses that terror to explore the reasons why some became anti-war activists and why others became soldiers.

You won’t find Hearts in Atlantis on any “read-alike” list for The Things They Carried. There are many outstanding books about war, or that use war as a metaphor.  The Everett Public Library currently owns 57 titles with the Vietnamese Conflict, 1961-1975 — Fiction subject heading, and even more under Vietnam War, 1961-1975 — Fiction.

What I enjoyed most about reading Hearts in Atlantis was not just the book itself, but the transcendence of Pearl’s recommendation, the way the book unexpectedly balanced my reading of O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. To me, this is what programs like The Big Read are all about!


Bookmark and Share

The Things They Carried

Many Americans think real-life war is like a John Wayne movie. American soldiers are upright, brave, and honorable. When someone dies, the soldiers act in ways the audience understands. When the story ends, everyone knows the moral.

Well, Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried explodes this fantasy. In real life (and also in the book) O’Brien was a grunt in Alpha Company, in the northern part of South Vietnam. Most of the population there were Viet Cong sympathizers. For Alpha Company, death was always just a step away.

In this novel, nearly everything is shocking and unaccountable. The deaths of several soldiers are related over and over again in obsessive detail. Each retelling has a slightly different account of what happened and what witnesses did and said. When Curt Lemon is blown apart and his body sprayed into a tree, a soldier detailed to retrieve his body parts sings “Lemon Tree” as he tosses them down.

O’Brien says,

“…war has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery.” [p. 82]

After a soldier named Kiowa disappears into a riverside morass of human waste during a mortar barrage, Alpha Company has to probe thigh-high muck for his corpse. Years later, one of the soldiers drives endlessly around a lake in his Iowa home town, thinking about why he can’t talk to anyone about Kiowa’s death.

“…nobody in town wanted to know about the terrible stink. They wanted good intentions and good deeds. But the town was not to blame, really. It was a nice little town, very prosperous with neat houses and all the sanitary conveniences.” [p. 150]

Most of us live neat, sanitary lives and honk our car horns when we see someone waving a sign that says “support our troops.” Meanwhile, our nation today occupies two countries and our grunts are sent to war for tour after tour, whether they want to go or not. The toll on them is horrendous.

O’Brien shows that war is never moral, never uplifting, and is absolutely obscene and evil. Yes, soldiers are sometimes kind and brave, but sometimes in the ghastly fog of war they freeze in terror, defile corpses, and wantonly kill. From our easy chair, we can’t comprehend this. Nor can we judge them.

O’Brien achieved catharsis through writing about Vietnam. In real life, the guy who drove around the lake wasn’t so lucky. No one listened to him and he hanged himself three years later.  

O’Brien wrote this beautiful, awful book, and we should listen. When war is fought in our name, we should learn its nature and costs. You’ll never do that by watching “The Green Berets.”


Free Film Screening: Vietnam War Documentaries

Helicopter in Vietnam

Vietnam 1965, courtesy National Archives

On Sunday, May 2 at 2 p.m., two Vietnam War-era documentaries will be shown at the Everett Public Library Main Library auditorium as part of The Big Read program featuring The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s fictional account of the Vietnam War. These films and their creation and distribution are a part, perhaps less well known, of the story of United States involvement in Vietnam.

 Night of the Dragon, released in 1966, and Vietnam! Vietnam!, completed in 1968 and released in 1971, were produced and distributed by the United States Information Agency.

USIA was an independent agency within the executive branch of the federal government that existed from 1953 to 1999. Part of the mission of USIA was to explain and support American foreign policy and promote U.S. national interests through overseas information programs. These two films, narrated by Charlton Heston, were part of a USIA attempt to explain and justify U.S. involvement in Vietnam to the rest of the world.

Neither of these films could be shown in the United States at the time they were released. Until 1990, federal law prohibited films produced by the USIA to be shown in the United States unless a special exemption was made by Congress for a particular film. Congress was reluctant to have USIA information efforts directed at American citizens.

USIA distributed its films to foreign cinemas and world leaders, and showed them in USIA libraries around the world. While Night of the Dragon was shown widely abroad, Vietnam! Vietnam! was given very little exposure. By the time it was ready for distribution in 1971, U.S. foreign policy and the military and political situation had changed and the film was not considered helpful.

A word of warning about these films – there are some graphic scenes in each that may be considered disturbing – this screening is meant for adult audiences.


May is the Month of the Big Read

book coverWe are pleased to be participating in our second year of our partnership with the Sno-Isle Libraries in bringing The Big Read to all of Snohomish and Island Counties. The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts, designed to restore reading to the center of American culture—to encourage reading for pleasure and enlightenment.

 This year the book selection is Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War tour de force, The Things They Carried. Comprised of short stories O’Brien wrote over a period of years, this book has continued to receive critical acclaim since it was published. In fact, this year the book has been re-released in hardcover in recognition of its 20th anniversary.

The Big Read answers a big need. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, a 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, found that not only is literary reading in America declining rapidly among all groups, but that the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young.

We hope you will join us, in reading and experiencing this book during the month of May. To enhance your experience, we have many great programs on offer including a documentary film series that includes titles that were once unavailable to the American public. We also have a display in the main library of “Things” that guest speaker and Veteran Jim Pace himself carried in the War. (Pace will speak at the main library on May 8.)

A very special event, a “Book-It”-like verbatim performance of Things will be presented, free of charge, at Everett High School’s Little Theatre at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 15.

 For information on all of the programs and events throughout Snohomish and Island Counties, visit our Big Read website