What We’re Reading: Columbine by Dave Cullen

When I first read the reviews of Dave Cullen’s nonfiction book, Columbine, I was impressed, but something held me back from picking up a copy. Do I really want to read an account of the Columbine massacre? I mean, I already know how it turns out. And do I want to read something that depressing? But a friend, a voracious reader whose opinion I trust, stopped me at the gym recently and said You have to read this book. I went to The Regulator the next day and bought a copy, then devoured it within the next two days.


Columbine is In Cold Blood for today’s generation. An extraordinary work of investigation (Cullen spent ten years doing research and interviews), Cullen gives us a fascinating account of the infamous school shootings, as well as an incisive portrayal of the two teen killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold; their parents; the victims and their parents; school officials; the local police force; some FBI figures involved in the case; and the town of Littleton, Colorado. Cullen shows us a very human side to these two boys who were depicted as monsters; the agony of their parents, who were unfairly blamed; the despair of the victims’ families; and the plight of those who were critically injured during the shooting, all of whom followed their own paths of healing.


Everything you thought you knew about Columbine will be turned upside down. It’s shocking, not to mention discouraging, how the media distorted the story. Reporters were on the scene within mere hours of the shooting, and there were almost 2,000 students for them to interview. The media quickly painted a portrait of two bullied outcasts, part of the Trenchcoat Mafia, who were influenced by goth culture, Marilyn Manson, and violent video games and who were exacting revenge on the jocks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Klebold and Harris weren’t outcasts, they weren’t being bullied, and, in fact, they weren’t targeting specific individuals–their plan was to blow up the entire school. It was also shocking to discover that the local police force bungled things in a serious way. To cite one example, some time before the shootings, a police officer wrote an extensive report on Eric Harris and recommended his house be searched; nothing ever came of it. Had the search warrant been followed through, they would have found a huge cache of weapons. The same day the shootings happened, the police covered up this report; the truth wouldn’t come out until years later. It was also surprising to learn that the famous story about Cassie Bernall, one of the victims, was also untrue. (Supposedly one of the two killers, before shooting her, asked “Do you believe in God?” and Cassie replied “Yes.”) Even though the local churches knew this was a falsehood, they trumpeted her as a martyr to convert more followers–a marketing campaign that was very successful.


It’s amazing how Cullen manages to make the story so suspenseful, and how measured he is toward all of the people portrayed. Columbine ranks up there with Helter Skelter (about the infamous Charles Manson murders) as one of the best, and most chilling, true crime books. It should be essential reading for all Journalism, Psychology, and Criminal Justice students. The paperback edition, which I read, contains an Afterword with lots of fascinating new material, as well as discussion points.




–Michael Taeckens, Online and Paperback Marketing Director

5 Comments On This Post:

January 3, 2011
3:19 pm
Dave Cullen, author of Columbine says...

Wow, I really appreciate that Michael. Obviously I like the praise, but I think you also captured what I was trying to do it well. I spent years crafting how to make it suspenseful, because knew most readers would resist–I would–and I wanted to engage you.

I’m glad it worked for you.

And nice to hear you suggest schools use it. We’ve had a lot of interest from teachers and students, so we’re trying to help. I just created a (free) Columbine Student Guide and Columbine Teacher’s Guide.

Thanks.

January 4, 2011
3:05 am
Lisa says...

Cullen’s “Columbine” is only one of several books that focused exclusively on the Columbine massacre. I’ve been urging anyone who has read this book to please not stop with that one. Too many people have read this one book and think, “Ah yes, now I know all there is to know about what happened that day and why. End of story, case closed.” But nothing could be further from the truth. Cullen’s book is just one writer’s opinion on the events of that day, and what led up to it, and why. Despite what he and his publisher might have you believe “Columbine” is not the “definitive” account of what happened. Again, it’s simply one person’s version of it.

Anyone who has read Cullen’s book would really do well to check out three others on the same subject. They are: “Comprehending Columbine” by Ralph Larkin, “Columbine: A True Crime Story” by Jeff Kass and “No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine” by Brooks Brown. In direct contrast to Cullen’s assertions that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren’t bullied Ralph Larkin makes an excellent case for the fact that the two killers were bullied, extensively, and this bullying was witnessed by several students over the years. It’s just one of the many ways his book and the two others vary from Cullen’s.

The bottom line is, no one should read just one book on any subject and think that they have all the answers. Also, you misspelled Cassie Bernall’s last name.

January 4, 2011
2:04 pm
Janet Reid says...

Count me among the people who are pressing COLUMBINE into the hands of passersby on the street insisting they read it.

January 4, 2011
4:51 pm
admin says...

Dave: Thanks for writing in and providing the links to the student and teacher guides. Very smart thinking. Your website is excellent, by the way.

Lisa: Thanks for suggesting these other titles, and for pointing out the spelling error (now corrected). I wasn’t aware of these other books–I’ll have to check them out some time.

Cheers,

Michael

January 5, 2011
11:04 am
gm says...

Cullen , who first reported on the story for the online magazine Salon, acknowledges in the book’s source notes that thoughts he attributes to Klebold and Harris are conjecture gleaned from the record the pair left behind.

Jeff Kass takes a more straightforward approach in “Columbine: A True Crime Story,” working backward from the events of the fateful day.
The Denver Post

Mr. Cullen insists that the killers enjoyed “far more friends than the average adolescent,” with Harris in particular being a regular Casanova who “on the ultimate high school scorecard . . . outscored much of the football team.” The author’s footnotes do not reveal how he knows this; when I asked him about it while preparing this review, Mr. Cullen said he did not necessarily mean to imply that Harris was sexually active. But what else would such words mean?

“Eric and Dylan never had any girlfriends,” the more sober Mr. Kass writes, and were “probably virgins upon death.”
Wall Street Journal

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