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The Things They Carried Reading Response

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“For the common soldier,” Tim O’Brien writes in “How to Tell a True War Story,” “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” (O’Brien 78). O’Brien’s unique style, which blurs the lines between fact and fiction, is a central quality of his novel, The Things They Carried. There are many different techniques that Tim O’Brien uses to achieve this effect. One of them is depriving the story of any consistent flow or rhythm that the reader assume to be a plot. For example, characters such as Curt Lemon are killed and then later introduced, or the narrator undercuts what he has previously lead the reader to believe, as in the case of Norman Bowker’s suicide. A true war story is distinguishable “by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever” (O’Brien 72). None of the anecdotes in this novel demonstrate complete closure, except perhaps in the case where the character was killed. Even then, however, that particular loss had an impact upon the lives of the people who have survived. In this way, it becomes hard to think of this as a piece of fiction, as there is no apparent rising action, climax, or falling action. Even the end of the novel itself is indefinite and without resolution. Thus, Tim O’Brien gives his novel the appearance of a nonfiction memoir, when in reality, it is a work of fiction.

Another way that the author attempts to portray his work as a piece of nonfiction is by describing in detail the boring everyday life of a soldier. For example, Tim O’Brien starts off his story by listing all of the different items carried by soldiers in Vietnam. From various weapons to pictures of their loved ones, most of the items in this list are easily discussed without bringing up any emotion or uncertainty. Listing some of the weapons carried by soldiers, O’Brien enumerates, “At various times, in various situations, they carried M-14s and CAR-15s and Swedish Ks and grease guns and captured AK-47s and Chi-Coms and RPGs and Simonov carbines and black market Uzis and .38 caliber Smith & Wesson handguns and 66 mm LAWs and shotguns and silencers and blackjacks nd bayonets and C-4 plastic explosives” (O’Brien 7). By starting off the story with boring supply lists, the author seems to be establishing the idea of a nonfiction story early on. Later on in the story, O’Brien states, “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness” (O’Brien 68). Here, O’Brien is letting the readers know that some of the boring details had to be fabricated and included in the story to make it more believable. In other words, Tim O’Brien attempts to portray fiction as nonfiction by loading the reader with long, monotonous lists.

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Courage is the ability to do the right thing in the face of hardship. In his novel, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien explores the true meaning of courage, as his characters struggle with the concept and reach some surprising conclusions. One example of courage we see in the novel is when Tim O’Brien is drafted to the army and faced with a decision: go to war, or escape to Canada. Looking back at the moral split he faced during this time in his life, O’Brien remembers, “My conscience told me to run, but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war. What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame. Hot, stupid shame. I did not want people to think badly of me” (O’Brien 49). After his long hard struggle, Tim O’Brien finally decided to go to war because he was ashamed not to. Most people would think that this is cowardice, as they see courage as having the strength to face your fears and persevere despite hardship. However, what needs to be taken into account is the lack of any clear enemy or purpose that O’Brien can see to the war. He says himself in the story, “There were occasions, I believed when a nation was justified in using military force to achieve its ends, to stop a Hitler or some comparable evil, and I told myself that in such circumstances I would’ve willingly marched off to the battle. The problem, though, was that a draft board did not let you choose your war” (O’Brien 42). Consequently, I believe that Tim O’Brien did in fact display courage when he made the right choice and decided to go off blindly to a war that he knew nothing of, and did not care for.

Another example of courage we see in the novel is when Norman Bowker describes how he attempted to save Kiowa during the war. The night the platoon set up camp in a sewage field, they were hit with mortar fire. When the third round hit, Kiowa began screaming. Bowker saw Kiowa sink into the muck and grabbed him by the boot to pull him out. Describing this instance, Bowker remembers, “He pulled hard but Kiowa was gone, and then suddenly he felt himself going, too. The shit was in his nose and eyes. There were flares and mortar rounds, and the stink was everywhere – it was inside him, in his lungs – and he could no longer tolerate it. Not here, he thought. Not like this. He released Kiowa’s boot and watched it slide away” (O’Brien 143). I believe that courage should be measured by effort, not outcome, as sometimes our physical limitations can get in the way of our intentions. Norman Bowker tried to save Kiowa, but in the end, his body simply could not handle the task. However, despite not being able to save his friend, Bowker’s endeavours alone can be seen as acts of courage because he made the effort do the right thing in the face of hardship.

An outlier can be seen as a successful person who has accomplished extraordinary achievements that fall outside normal experience. Malcolm Gladwell argues that in order for one to become successful, he or she must be presented with a unique opportunity, and have the strength and ambition to seize it. It was taking advantage of these two things that made Bill Gates the outlier he is today. Therefore, in Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell uses Bill Gates as an extended example to illustrate and define who outliers are. The first way we can see Bill Gates as an ideal outlier is by taking a look at all of the opportunities that were presented to him. Opportunity number one was that he had access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. Number two was that he was asked to check in on code at C-Cubed on weekends (and weeknights). Number three was that Gates found out about ISI, and they needed someone to check in on their payroll software. Number four was that Gates happened to live within walking distance of the University of Washington, where he found free computer time. And number five was that when presented with a job by TRW, Gates was allowed to spend his spring term off campus writing code. In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell explains that, “ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world class expert” (Gladwell 40). By the time Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to try his hand at his own software company, he already had way more than ten thousand hours of practice under his belt, thus making him a perfect example of one who was presented with opportunity and made the best of it. Discussing his unique experience with computer software, Gates remarks, “I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events” (Gladwell 55).

Furthermore, the second way Bill Gates can be seen as an ideal outlier is by his work ethic, as “the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder” (Gladwell 39). All the opportunities Gates had would have amounted to nothing if he didn’t have the ambition to seize them. Fortunately, he did. Discussing his love for computer programming, “‘It was my obsession,’ Gates says of his early high school years. ‘I skipped athletics. I went up there at night. We were programming on weekends. It would be a rare week that we wouldn’t get twenty or thirty hours in’” (Gladwell 52). By spending his early morning and late nights on a computer, Bill Gates was able to complete the ten thousand hours of practice he required, and make sure that his opportunity was not wasted. In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell describes, “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities – and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them” (Gladwell 267). Because he fits this mold so perfectly, Bill Gates has been used by Malcolm Gladwell as an extended example of what an outlier is.

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell argues that cultural legacy is one of the many hidden advantages that allow some people to make sense of the world in ways others cannot. Furthermore, one aspect of cultural legacy that can allow some people to progress more than others is that of meaningful work. Meaningful work is work where there is a direct relationship between effort and reward: the more you work, the more you get in return. I believe that meaningful work is what motivates one to progress, or improve themselves, and is thus a key ingredient to success. In the novel, this can be seen by Louis Borgenicht, a Jewish immigrant that started a successful clothing business in 1890s New York. Unlike other immigrants at the time, the Jews that came to America had some sort of occupational skill. Borgenicht’s skill was his knowledge of the clothing industry. This allowed him to start his own business, unlike other immigrants, who just worked as laborers. Describing Borgenicht’s business, Gladwell writes, “He was his own boss. He was responsible for his own decisions and direction. His work was complex: it engaged his mind and imagination. And in his work, there was a relationship between effort and reward: the longer he and regina stayed up at night sewing aprons, the more money they made the next day in the streets” (Gladwell 149). The author goes on to explain that it is the connection between effort and reward that makes work satisfying, and therefore meaningful. Although it was his knowledge of the industry that allowed Borgenicht to start his business, it was meaningful work that allowed his business to grow and prosper. Because his work satisfied him, Borgenicht was able to stay motivated enough to persevere despite hardship. In the end, that was how he eventually succeeded.

Another example of meaningful work we can see in Outliers: The Story of Success is the work of a rice farmer. Compared to other types of farming, rice farming is very difficult and tedious work. Rice farmers in China don’t have machines and technology. Instead, they must become smarter about how they divide their time and resources. They get up early in the morning, and spend their days checking water levels, cleaning claypans, and making sure they use every inch of their land. Even during the dry season, rice farmers busy themselves by repairing their rice paddies, or making bamboo hat and baskets to sell in the market. Commenting on their work ethic, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “Throughout history, not surprisingly, the people who grow rice have always worked harder than almost any other kind of farmer” (Gladwell 233). The reason why they can work so hard is because their work is meaningful to them. Describing the work of the rice farmer, Gladwell writes, “It was a lot like the garment work done by the Jewish immigrants to New York. It was meaningful. First of all, there is a clear relationship in rice farming between effort and reward. The harder you work in a rice field, the more it yields” (Gladwell 236). Just like it did for Borgenicht, the relationship between effort and reward is what allows rice farmers to continue their hard work despite its difficulty. The fact that their work is meaningful means that they enjoy their work, and thus it is done more easily. To conclude, I agree with Malcolm Gladwell in the fact that meaningful work is a part of cultural legacy that allows some people to progress more than others. This is because, as we can see in the novel, meaningful work is what allowed Jewish garment makers and Chinese rice farmers to persevere and succeed in their work despite the hardships they faced.

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