Columbine, reviewed

ColumbineColumbine by Dave Cullen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You may think you know what happened at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. You may remember the stories, the moments caught on TV, the copycats. The trenchcoats, the bleak heavy metal, the video games.

You probably remember the aftermath, too. The crying on TV, the books, the documentary by Michael Moore. You probably remember shock rocker Marilyn Mansion saying that he would have listened, since nobody else did.

You probably remember all of that and more. And as Dave Cullen’s Columbine so aptly shows, everything you remember is wrong.

To say this book busts myths is to greatly undersell what it does. A masterpiece of long form journalism, Cullens work cuts to the bone of the matter, stripping away the layers of spin and hyperbole that have come to define the tragedy. He doesn’t just explain why the myths are wrong, he explains why and how they came to fruition – and who stood to gain from them.

Cullen’s book is amazingly detailed and exhaustively researched. He did hundreds of interviews, poured through thousands of pages of police reports, read almost everything there was on the subject – his bibliography is 12 pages long – and spent nine years reporting and researching the shooting. This level of devotion to the subject is what makes the book excel. I can’t imagine there is anybody else as qualified on the shooting as Cullen.

Like the book’s cover – a haunting, stark shot of the high school – Columbine is a dark, bleak book. It takes you deep inside the psyche of the two shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and offers a stark look at what motivated them. There was no exceptional bullying, no Trench Coat Mafia, nothing of the sort. Instead, the two were exceptional cases, one psychopath fuelled by an inner rage and basic evil, the other an insecure wreck that fed off the energies of the other.

The basic lesson of the book is that they knew what they were doing. They planned it in meticulous detail, they kept journals and logs and they filmed every step of their plan. This was no case of angered revenge; it was always, right from the get go, supposed to be a massacre. The level of detail, the exact precision of their plans are horrific and disturbing to the core. These were not people that it would have helped to listen to.

But the book is far more then just a recount of the events of March 20. Cullen goes deep into the past between the two, their friendships and their prior offenses. He goes into the present, too, charting the aftermath of the shooting: the scares it gave around the country, the impact it had on other schools and the myths that sprung up around the shooting.

Most surprising thing about the book is the portrayal of Klebold. The popular perception of his life is that he too was a stone-cold killer, a willing partner in the shootings. But as this book reveals, it just isn’t the case – in his journals, he wrote about love just as much as anything else. Seeing this side of somebody so infamous is stunning, almost bizarre. At times it’s hard to imagine that the same person could, and would, turn a loaded firearm on his peers.

Cullen’s book is full of twists like that. It’s a masterpiece of reporting and a long awaited fresh look at a topic that has been discussed to death. It’s easily one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

3 Responses to “Columbine, reviewed”

  1. May 5, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Thanks for the really thoughtful review of my book. I do appreciate that.

    We’ve got lesson plans now, because of the interest from students and teachers/profs, and I’m doing phone-ins or skype to book clubs.

    An expanded paperback edition is just out. I spent a lot of time on the new material, so I hope it’s OK to mention what I added:

    — A 12-page afterword: “Forgiveness.” It includes startling new revelations on the killers’ parents. The purpose, though, was to look at three victims in very different places 11 years later, and how forgiving played a pivotal role in their grief. I discovered the secret meetings with the killers’ parents in the process.

    — Actual journal pages from Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold.

    — Book Club Discussion Questions (also available at Oprah.com).

    — Diagram of Columbine High School and environs.

    — A large-print edition is also now available.

    There’s lots more info at my Columbine site.

    Thanks again.

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