Monday Memories: Dispatches by Michael Herr


This is the third of my Monday Memories series of posts. In these posts, I pull a book off my shelf, somewhat randomly, and tell you a bit about it. It's not a review of the book so much as a memory of the book, a bit about what might have been going on in my life when I read it, and my thoughts on who might like this book. 

The Book

Dispatches by Michael Herr, A Borzoi Book Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (Book Club Edition). Copyright 1968, 1969, 1970, 1977.

Why This Book?

I was sitting on the couch looking out at the lake when for whatever reason I turned and looked at my bookcases, and my eye fell directly on this book. And I thought, "Well, that's the book for this week."

What's This Book About?

From memory:
This book is about the Vietnam War. I think I remember it being a reporter's set of stories, and that it was pretty adult reading when I read it, which would have been back when I was in high school. I remember being a bit unnerved by this book, and not quite knowing how to take it.

From perusing the book after I pulled it off the shelf:
Michael Herr was a war correspondent who covered the Vietnam War for Esquire magazine. This book is written in a style that is immediate, intense, and filled with the language of the American soldiers doing the actual fighting. Flip this book open to any page, pick any paragraph and start reading, and you'll be immersed immediately into the Vietnam of those American soldiers. 

Just randomly, here is the start of a paragraph from page 59 -

Some people just wanted to blow it all to hell, animal vegetable and mineral. They wanted a Vietnam they could fit into their car ashtrays; the joke went, "What you do is, you load all the Friendlies onto ships and take them out to the South China Sea. Then you bomb the country flat. Then you sink the ships."

Unsparing - and there's a lot more where that came from. 

This book was published in 1977. Carter was President, and it was that strange time between the shocks of Watergate and the end of Vietnam, and the boom times of the 1980s.  The war had ended in failure and America was still struggling to make sense of what had happened. People were either trying to just forget it, or they were only just beginning the effort to build the collective story that made it fit into our understanding of our country. 

Dispite all of that, Dispatches was well received. It spoke directly to soldiers' experiences at a time when vets from Vietnam were likely not telling their own stories from the war.

What Was Going On In My Life When I Read This?

I was a senior in high school when this book came out. I am sure there were parts of it I didn't quite understand or couldn't really relate to. It's sobering now to think that many of the folks in Dispatches stories, who were fighting this war, were just a few years older than I would have been when I read it.  

My copy of Dispatches was a Book Of the Month Selection when it came out in 1977, and my copy came from the Book of the Month Club. 

I have loved to read since I was a kid and so, after I got my first job at the age of 16 (1976), and had money of my own to spend, I decided to join the Book of the Month Club (BOMC). 

At the time, the BOMC would send you a mailer with a small catalogue each month, and offer a certain book as their Book of the Month Selection. If you wanted that book, you would just wait and within a few weeks it would be in your mailbox, and you'd mail them a check back. If you didn't want the Selection, you'd mark a box on a return card that came in the mailer, mail the card back, and they'd take you off the list to receive the book. On the return card you could also write in the names of other books from the catalogue that you'd want. The prices were good - BOMC editions cost less than the same hardcover books at the bookstore. 

BOMC had an introductory offer that had lured me in. In their magazine ads there were lists of 20 or 30 books, and you'd mark down four books you wanted, clip the mailer from the ad, and mail it to them. They'd send you four hardcover books for only $1. That was a pretty sweet deal for four brand new hardcover books, even back then.

Book of the Month Club Ad from 1976

Also, you might notice from the photo of my copy of Dispatches that it has the slipcover wrapped in plastic, just like a library book. Well, that's because I was always bugging the high school librarian for new books to read, and when I joined the BOMC and started bringing my own books to the library she offered to wrap them for me. I'm pretty sure the arrangement was that I paid for the materials, but she didn't charge me for her time. She did it because she wanted to encourage this teenager's love of books.

Why Would Someone Like This Book?

Michael Herr was a gifted correspondent, and this book is still recognized as one of best memoirs of war. Recent reviews on Goodreads, for example, are consistently four or five stars. Herr went on to be the co-author of the screenplays for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, and was also a novelist. He died in 2016. 

If you want to learn more about what the Vietnam War was like for the soldiers who fought it then by all means read this book.

So that's my "Monday Memories" book post for this week. Do you still have books in your collection that you read but maybe didn't completely understand as a teenager? Leave a comment below.