You’re not getting the whole story

Statue at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. Photo by barb howe. Used under cc license

I just finished rereading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s a book that I had used in eleventh grade English a number of years ago and would love to teach now, except that it’s still part of the eleventh grade curriculum here and I teach tenth grade. In fact, it’s one of the two books that many of my former advanced sophomores are currently reading as their summer assignment for AP English.

That’s all beside the point, I guess, because none of that really has to do with why I checked out a digital copy from the library and reread it. I did so partially because I’ll eventually be covering it on a podcast episode and because it’s one of two war books I absolutely love (the other is All Quiet on the Western Front) and since I’d been telling my tenth graders how jealous I was that they got to read the book, I decided to check it out.

ANYWAY (my tenth grade English teacher always gave me grief for long-winded intros), I was getting some materials together for summer school and came across an excerpt from The Things They Carried in the eleventh grade textbook. It’s the chapter titled “Ambush,” which begins with O’Brien’s daughter asking him if he ever killed someone when he was in the war, a question that leads into a vivid description of an ambush and the events which led to that particular man’s death. The Things They Carried being a novel that is really a collection of interconnected stories instead of one long narrative lends itself pretty well to excerpts. In fact, some of the stories in the book were published in magazines as short stories at one time or another–I read the “title track” story, “The Things They Carried” in an anthology during my freshman year of college–so seeing this in an English textbook sort of makes sense.

McDougal Littel, who published the book, does what they can to establish some sort of background or context or learning objective for “Ambush.” The page prior to the story is called “Preparing to Read” and on it there is a “Build Background” paragraph on the uncertainties of war, a “Comparing Literature” box for comparing “Ambush” to another story in the unit, and a “Focus Your Reading” blurb that goes over the definition of internal and external conflict. There’s also some tips on how to keep your “reader’s notebook” for “Active Reading.” However, for all of their efforts in trying to make this story accessible–which also include, by the way, pictures to go along with the story–the publisher ultimately fails to truly capture the impact of “Ambush.” It’s not that they didn’t try to provide enough context or set a proper objective or anything like that, it’s that they pulled the story from a larger work and as a result took away a significant amount of its meaning.

Over the course of the second half of The Things They Carried, O’Brien, who at that point has been focused on telling the stories of his fellow grunts, begins to open up a little more and turn the lens on himself as a character. One of the most important events of the war for him is when he wound up killing a young man in My Khe and this event begins to be told the chapter prior to “Ambush,” “The Man I Killed.” It’s not a description of killing the man, but O’Brien’s attempt to create a character from this person whose most prominent descriptive feature is the star-shaped hole that was once one of his eyes, before O’Brien shot him.

It’s a powerful image and a powerful couple of pages in the book, on par with the Gerard Duval scene in All Quiet on the Western Front (Paul stabs a French soldier in a shell hole and is forced to sit there with him as he dies slowly until the artillery fire ceases. During this time, he rifles through the man’s things and sees how human the enemy really is). It then leads into “Ambush” where we find out how O’Brien did the deed. After “Ambush,” it’s something that comes up a few times, a haunting image for O’Brien. And the excerpt in the textbook just ruins that.

I understand why it is in the textbook–it’s a great descriptive passage and a well-written scene that describes the on-the-ground experience of war in a way that your average history book doesn’t–but pulling it from a greater work waters it down. It’s like taking a quote from Aristotle, Einstein, Churchill, Twain, Frost, or Christ and putting it on a poster. Sure there is a great shot of a beach or woods or the literal road not taken but do you really get what it all means? Do you really understand the greater concept? I don’t know about you, but I’m not the biggest fan of literature by Successories. And thus, as I’ve mentioned before, one of the fundamental flaws of an English textbook: you cannot appreciate literature when it so compartmentalized like this, especially when so much of what is in here is presented to teachers–okay, to whomever is buying these things, so it’s probably textbook adoption committees–with an eye not towards enriching students’ experience with the written word but standardized test prep (the amount of ancillary materials that come with your average English textbook could choke a large pachyderm).

So instead of spending money on affordable anthologies and collections or more copies of novels, a ton of money is spent on weighty books with bells and whistles that never ring or get blown but simply just blow (Sorry, it had to be done). I think this is why I am partial to whole novels or plays instead of excerpts and when I do teach shorter works, I make sure that they are self-contained shorter works. Our modern, Successorized culture that cherry picks and waters down is what I am just about every other English teacher is up against in our fight to get students to dig deeper and think, to realize that literature can be a long haul and to appreciate that long haul while they’re in it instead of simply celebrating reaching the end or grabbing one line for a “quote.”

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