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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Tim O'Brien Or "Tim O'Brien"?

What was the last book you read that forced you to re-consider often used labels? 

After finishing Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" (1990) late last night, the first thing I did was return to the front to read the description of reviewers. Because that didn't clarify much for me, I next turned to the title page and saw "A Work Of Fiction" underneath the title. Although I assume those words were sanctioned by the author, I still wasn't satisfied.

Though I'm not thrilled acknowledging it, labels are comforting to me. Like many people, I like putting stuff into boxes. Notwithstanding those words on the title page, this harrowing book gave me no such comfort. In one story (chapter?), the author says he is using the "real" names of soldiers in his platoon. Throughout the book, one of those soldiers is named Tim O'Brien, the other soldiers refer to him as "the writer", and the names of several books by author Tim O'Brien are mentioned in the text using correct chronology. So, is this "work of fiction" actually non-fiction? Is it a memoir? Is it a series of stories? Does it matter?

Excuse the apples to orangutans comparison, but teaching people how to read guitar music I recently uncovered something fascinating, parallel to this very human need for labels and boxes. Almost without exception, learners have much more difficulty reading music under the staff than they do when notes are located on the lines or spaces of the staff. My theory? That box, i.e. the staff, gives us comfort and makes learning a little easier. I accept and embrace the ambiguity of O'Brien's brilliant book and suspect my discomfort finding a label might have been part of his intent. When you read it, tell me your thoughts.    

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