The best books I never read, cont.*

I feel like I should apologize for blogging relatively infrequently of late, but I don’t have a strong sense of whether people are checking for updates or are just following links from Facebook and Google+. I’ve been working on a short story and just did a book review of Tim O’Briens The Things They Carried for an academic website, so that’s been the main focus of my typing and cognitive energy. Also, I catered my cousin’s going away party and co-catered my friend’s bridal shower, so I was on a cooking spree.

These are books I was reading in December 2008. Also, my right knee.

My last post, about the ways in which books enter culture and become familiar, even to those who haven’t read them, was part of a longer thought about how it’s also possible to reread a book and still feel like you’re reading it for the first time. I read The Things They Carried in high school (and I think parts of it in middle school, when my older brother was reading it), and I hadn’t thought about it often since then, but I had a very strong impression of the work as a whole and the impressionistic sense that O’Brien creates with overlapping stories. Coming back to it this week, I was surprised by how much of the book seemed familiar, but I also could tell that I was paying attention to the details more closely,  (I’m trying to work out how to articulate this … ) focusing on h0w the narrators and characters describe storytelling and truth, because I remember that part standing out before, and because it’s also a theme I became really interested in near the end of college, while reading a lot of trauma fiction and memoirs that incorporate and contest the possibility of recreating “truth” in narrative form.**

OK, you know what, I’m not in school, and that wasn’t homework, so I’m going to self-plagiarize. One of the questions I had to respond to was “So what?” (as in why does this book matter):***

Because The Things They Carried makes you believe that its stories are true, even while the narrator points out that he’s changing details and making things up, even while the characters admit that they’re embellishing and repeating stories told to them by other people.

… [T]he title page emphasizes that the book is “a work of fiction,” but the stories make you want to believe that it isn’t. To make matters more confusing, the protagonist shares the author’s name and mixes details about his writing career in with the narrative. He also suggests that the characters he describes are real – even though he also explicitly states that he has changed names, details and locations.

One of the book’s strengths is in tying together form and content; as the narrator presents stories, often as told by other men in Alpha Company, the characters themselves philosophize about what makes a good story and the ways in which they add and subtract details to get at a story’s truth. The reader is left to figure out and decide what seems true.

The loss of innocence and inability to find meaning, issues of morality, bravery and complicity, especially as expressed through the shock of violence and death, are relevant to any generation faced with the ethical dilemmas of war – not just in the sense of international politics or policy decisions, but in the effects of the humans forced to wage them.

Clearly, this is not the type of writing sample I’d submit to a graduate school admissions board, but seriously, The Things They Carried is such an interesting examination of storytelling (and other topics, like, hey, the war — but it does the storytelling parts so well). What was my point? N.b. I’m about to leave to go meet up with my cousin, so I am really distracted and need to go change. Mitchell Sanders would point out that I’m ruining the tone and am a terrible storyteller.

Fine, I guess I will end with saying that it was exciting to reread The Things They Carried and see that it exceeded my recollected expectations for it. It still resonated emotionally, even though it was also more familiar than I expected (the chapter titles also stood out as particularly familiar, for some reason).

What about you? What books have surprised you to reread? Are there any book that still surprise you after more than two or three rereadings? (People do that, right?)

* Footnote from the title, heeeeeeey! This post is about to be so meta it hurts. Or something. I started this as a T+N post and was going to paste in a Facebook note I wrote a while ago, but before I even got to introducing it, I was at 560+ words, so right after writing the second footnote (which was created before this one), I changed this post into something else.

** I hung out with my friend Udeitha after writing “The best books I never read,” and we moved from talking about rereading books to discussing rewatching movies; she said that she can recall having been able to identify which passages or scenes were important, even if she didn’t completely grasp what was happening, but going back now, she sees the same passages and agrees with her previous assessments + is now able to bring a deeper understanding to the text/film/image. I wonder, of course, how much of this is what I’m going to call the “Memento” effect, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of interpretation.^

^ I should also note that Udeitha was slightly alarmed by how I was speaking — I’ve learned that it’s really hard to be the first person I talk to after I write about something, because I want to discuss all of the different things I thought about while writing. More specifically, I pinned down that the reason I feel less articulate in person lately is because I’m trying to carry on conversations as if I were blogging, and instead of just responding to something interesting in a conversation, I also want to provide conversational track-backs into my mind. Lorena assured me that it’s not as obnoxious as I think, because she thinks the same way, but it just makes me wonder even more about how the Internet using any technology whatsoever changes everything.

*** Found a typo after pasting this in here, fixed it on both sites, whee! I used to be a copy editor!

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