Big Read 2017: The Things They Carried

dark orange distressed background with soldier

During fall 2017, the Kansas City area's six public library systems join together for a community-wide reading and discussion of Tim O'Brien's seminal work about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried.

The local edition of the 2017 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Big Read offers programs exploring veterans' war experiences, music of the period, Hollywood's handling of the war, comparisons of 1960s protests with present-day movements, writing about war, civil rights, and the era's cultural and political legacy. The initiative also coincides with the premiere of the PBS documentary series The Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

The Big Read KC offers special events, book conversations, film screenings and presentations, community activities, and more. You can also find more regional programming at

About the Big Read

Fifty years ago, amid rising anger and unrest, America was grinding through its long, painful and ultimately unwinnable war in Vietnam. Nightly newscasts took grim account of the dead and missing. Nearly half the country considered it "a mistake." Weary and dispirited, Lyndon Johnson would announce within months that he'd end his presidency after a single term.

It played out against an iconic soundtrack—We gotta get out of this place—that reverberates to this day.

In a remarkable collaboration, the Kansas City area's six public libraries are revisiting that turbulent period in history through a community-wide reading and discussion of Tim O'Brien's seminal book The Things They Carried. This local edition of the 2017 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Big Read initiative features speaking presentations, film screenings, youth activities, and group discussions of O'Brien's evocative collection of stories about a fictional platoon of U.S. soldiers before, during, and after the Vietnam War.

The Things They Carried is a modern classic, a meditation on the Vietnam War by a former Army foot soldier who was drafted out of college in 1968, began a 13-month tour in Vietnam the following year, and returned home with a Purple Heart for a shrapnel injury suffered in a grenade attack. O'Brien's book consists of 22 interrelated stories illuminating both the physical horror and emotional toll of the conflict. It sold more than 2 million copies and made O'Brien a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1991.

NEA Big Read KC offers a broad and illuminating examination of the Vietnam War era with signature presentations that delve into topics including the music of the period, Hollywood's handling of the war, comparisons of 1960s protests with present-day movements, and writing about war.

The Vietnam remembrance coincides with the September premiere of Ken Burns' latest documentary series, The Vietnam War, on KCPT-Kansas City PBS and other public television stations across the nation. Burns and co-director Lynn Novick kick off Big Read KC with a KCPT-sponsored appearance Sept. 8. The 10-part, 18-hour series begins airing on PBS on Sept. 17.

For details on all Big Read KC programs, activities, and other resources, visit

NEA Big Read

An initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest, the NEA Big Read broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Showcasing a diverse range of contemporary titles that reflect many different voices and perspectives, the NEA Big Read aims to inspire conversation and discovery.

How to Participate

  • Get a copy of The Things They Carried from your local library: Books may be available for checkout in print, eBook, audiobook, and large print formats. Select libraries may have a limited supply of complimentary copies available.
  • Attend an event or activity.: Whether at your favorite library location or another site in the metro area, NEA Big Read KC offers many author presentations, music performances, film screenings, and more. Check out programs at the Kansas City Public Library including Tim O'Brien's visit to the Plaza Branch on Oct.12—or discover activities throughout greater Kansas City at
  • Watch the PBS documentary series The Vietnam War.: The 10-part, 18-hour series, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, premieres September 17 on KCPT - Kansas City Public Television. Learn more about KCPT’s Sept. 8 Kansas City event featuring Burns and Novick.
  • Join a book discussion.: Want to explore The Things They Carried with others? Join a featured discussion or find opportunities at various library locations or other community sites. Connect with a Library book group >
  • Engage on social media.: Connect with the Library on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms. Join other readers and share your Big Read KC experiences by tagging your posts with #bigreadkc. You can also follow the latest updates on the Big Read KC Facebook Group at

About the Book

'The Things They Carried' book cover

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is considered one of the finest books about the Vietnam War. Far from a combat story of pride and glory, it is a compassionate tale of the American soldier, brimming with raw honesty and thoughtful reflection.

The book's narrator follows a platoon of infantrymen through the jungles of Vietnam. We see them trudge through the muck of a constant downpour, get hit by sniper fire, pull body parts out of a tree, laugh while they tell their stories to one another, and fall silent when faced with making sense of it all—both in the moment and twenty years later.

The Things They Carried is not just a tale of war, and the book's themes are no less relevant today than they were decades ago. This award-winning work is a brutal, sometimes funny, often profound narrative about the human heart—how it fares under pressure and what it can endure.

About the Author

Tim O'Brien

Raised in a small prairie town, Worthington, in southern Minnesota, Tim O'Brien attended Macalester College in St. Paul. He earned good grades, became student body president, and occasionally attended peace vigils and protests against the burgeoning war in Vietnam. Upon graduating in 1968 with a B.A. in political science, he thought of becoming a writer—inspired in part by his father's personal accounts of World War II battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, which were published in The New York Times.

Then he got his Army draft notice. O'Brien served a 13-month tour of duty in 1969-70 as a foot soldier with the 46th Infantry in Quang Ngai province, returning home with a Purple Heart after being hit by shrapnel in a grenade attack.

He first wrote about his war experience in a memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, published in 1973 while he was pursuing graduate studies in government at Harvard University. O'Brien spent a year as a national affairs reporter for The Washington Post, then turned fulltime to writing books. The Things They Carried, released in 1990, was his third about the Vietnam War and made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (won in 1991 by John Updike's Rabbit At Rest).

O'Brien, 70, now lives in Austin, Texas, and teaches creative writing at Texas State University.

Big Read KC offers a wide array of programs that explore the legacy of the Vietnam War. The following list highlights a handful of notable Library events; you can find additional activities online or by contacting your local library or by visiting

Featured Events

  • The Vietnam War: An Evening with Ken Burns & Lynn Novick | Friday, September 8 | Program: 7 p.m. | Arvest Bank Theater at the Midland, 1228 Main St, Kansas City, MO 64105 (Get directions >). Presented by KCPT- Kansas City PBS | ** Please note that this is a paid ticket event hosted by KCPT. **
  • Writers at War: Literature and the Wartime Experience | Matthew Eck, H.C. Palmer, Whitney Terrell | Wednesday, September 27 | 6:30 p.m. | Central Library
  • The Things They Carried | Tim O'Brien | Thursday, October 12 | 6:30 p.m. | Plaza Branch | Watch a video of this event at
  • Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam | Mark Bowden | Wednesday, October 18 | 6:30 p.m. | Plaza Branch
  • We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War | Doug Bradley | Thursday, October 19 | 6:30 p.m. | Central Library
  • Standing Up and Sitting Down: Protests and Dissent in the 1960s and Beyond | Rebecca Davis, Sandra Enriquez | Wednesday, October 25 | 6:30 p.m. | Central Library
  • Viewing Vietnam: A Matter of Time and Place | Tuesday, October 31 | 6:30 p.m. | Central Library
  • Hollywood and the Vietnam War: Echoes of the War in American Film | Mitch Brian | Thursday, November 2 | 6:30 p.m. | Plaza Branch
  • Closing Chapter: End of the War in Vietnam | David F. Lambertson | Thursday, November 16 | 6:30 p.m. | Plaza Branch

Events for Kids & Teens

  • Friday Night Family Fun: Autumn Moon Festival | Friday, September 29 | 6:30 p.m. | Plaza Branch
  • Wildcard Wednesdays: Mid-Autumn Festival | Wednesday, October 11 | 5:00 p.m. | Plaza Branch | For ages 12-18.

Special Activities

  • Vietnam Voices Storybooth | The Vietnam Voices KCPT Storybooth is touring the region collecting local stories, experiences, and thoughts related to the Vietnam War. During Big Read KC the booth will visit the Plaza Branch and Central Library, offering patrons an opportunity to share and record their own stories.

    Friday, September 22 to Thursday, October 12 | Plaza Branch

    Saturday, October 14 to Friday, October 20 | Central Library

  • Veterans Writing Workshops | The Missouri Humanities Council, The Writers' Place, the Moral Injury Association of America, and the Kansas City Public Library offer a series of workshops designed to help veterans and their families develop writing and narrative skills that can empower them to tell their stories, whether they be true-life accounts or wholly original tales. Each of the four-hour workshops is free and conducted by professional writers and educators; they provide the same high level of instruction as a college or university writing course. Sessions cover a variety of topics, ranging from understanding genre and building narratives to editing and collaboration and publication. Workshops are FREE, but space is limited and registration is required.

Film Screenings and Discussions

  • Hollywood and the Vietnam War: Echoes of the War in American Film | Mitch Brian | Thursday, November 2, 2017 | Program: 6:30 p.m. | Plaza Branch
  • Coming Home (1978, R) | Saturday, October 7 | <1:30 p.m. | Central Library Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987, R) | Saturday, October 14 | 1:30 p.m. | Central Library Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault
  • The Deer Hunter (1978, R) | Saturday, October 21 | 1:30 p.m. | Central Library Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault
  • The Killing Fields (1984, R) | Saturday, October 28 | 1:30 p.m. | Central Library Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault
  • We Were Soldiers (2002, R) | Friday, September 22 | 12:00 noon | Waldo Branch
  • Good Morning Vietnam (1987, R) | Tuesday, October 3 | 6:30 p.m. | Central Library Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault

2017 Big Read KC Partners and Sponsors

Official media partner: KCPT - Kansas City PBS

The NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.

Additional program funding provided through a partnership with the Missouri Humanities Council.