Saturday, November 5, 2016

Non-Fiction November: Columbine by Dave Cullen (Review) (Repost from 2014)

Release date: March 1st, 2009
Author links: Goodreads - Twitter - Website
Publisher: Twelve
Pages: 417

Description (from Goodreads):

Ten years in the making and a masterpiece of reportage, "Columbine" is an award-winning journalist's definitive account of one of the most shocking massacres in American history.

It is driven by two questions: what drove these killers, and what did they do to this town?


"On April 20, 1999, two boys left an indelible stamp on the American psyche. Their goal was simple: to blow up their school, Oklahoma City-style, and to leave a lasting impression on the world. Their bombs failed, but the ensuing shooting defined a new era of school violence--irrevocably branding every subsequent shooting 'another Columbine.

"When we think of Columbine, we think of the Trench Coat Mafia; we think of Cassie Bernall, the girl we thought professed her faith before she was shot; and we think of the boy pulling himself out of a school window--the whole world was watching him. Now, in a riveting piece of journalism nearly ten years in the making, comes the story none of us knew. In this revelatory book, Dave Cullen has delivered a profile of teenage killers that goes to the heart of psychopathology. He lays bare the callous brutality of mastermind Eric Harris and the quavering, suicidal Dylan Klebold, who went to the prom three days earlier and obsessed about love in his journal.

"The result is an astonishing account of two good students with lots of friends, who were secretly stockpiling a basement cache of weapons, recording their raging hatred, and manipulating every adult who got in their way. They left signs everywhere, described by Cullen with a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen. Drawing on hundreds of interviews, thousands of pages of police files, FBI psychologists, and the boys' tapes and diaries, he gives the best complete account of the Columbine tragedy.

After suffering from a reading slump for an extended period of time, I knew that the next book I would decide to read would have to be one that would immediately grab my attention in order to keep me interested and pull me away from the dreadful slump caused by university tasks and readings. Knowing myself and my reading habits, I knew that I would need something that would make me think - unlike some people who want to read something fluffy and maybe even silly to balance their studies, I usually try to find something that will keep my mind active, something preferably even a little related to my studies at the moment, if possible. Don't get me wrong - I do love fluff (romance etc.) and read it a lot, but not usually while I am intensively studying at the same time. 

Well, since I am doing a course this semester called media events and since I have to do a presentation for that course about a particular media event, I decided to finally pick out Dave Cullen's Columbine, an account of the school shootings of 1999. [2016 edit: I ended up using Cullen's book as a source for a presentation about a 2014 school shooting in Seattle that never gained the kind of attention Columbine did, but that I happened to be able to follow in "real time" from online news.]

Dave Cullen was able to pull me into the book right away. I had some previous knowledge of the case and while reading the book I realized that most of that knowledge was based on the myths that Cullen attempts to break with this book - the Cassie Bernall "martyr" myth, the Trench Coat Mafia, the possible links to Neo-Nazism etc. I had also seen Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine before, which I absolutely loved (Moore is one of my favorite documentary filmmakers) and I found it extremely interesting to familiarize myself with someone else's account on the happenings. 

The more I read, the more interested I got. The detail in Cullen's book is astonishing (no wonder he worked on this for ten years), factual and well presented. While reading some of the reviews for the book on Goodreads, I noticed some people criticizing that Cullen's writing style lacks humanity due to its very factual explanation of the events. I do agree with that, but I personally did not mind it - I actually quite enjoyed it. Cullen's style is very academic and rationalistic - he states the facts as they are, relying on FBI statements, statements of psychologists and other experts, as well as the statements based on his own process of evidence gathering. There are segments in this book that are absolutely horrifying and miserable, as were the things that happened on April 20, 1999. Cullen does not gloss over the corpses, the blood, and the horror - he explains the events as they took place. Saying that Cullen's writing lacks humanity is not completely right, though - there are segments here and there that give a voice to the victims, their parents and those who were in any way touched by the events that took place.

What I admired about Cullen's writing is the way he approaches the killers. He wants to understand them - he treats them as human beings and tries to open up to the reader their histories and the possible causes for what made them do what they did. Through analysis of their journals, their friendships and the videos they recorded, Cullen builds up profiles of the killers. I understand why some writers have approached the shooters in a very different way, but I personally found this approach interesting, because it didn't directly go to judgment but tried to achieve understanding. 

I found Cullen's book to be interesting, thoughtful, thorough and extremely well-written. It is sad, violent and gruesome, but deep down, there's some hopefulness found from the stories of the people who survived it all - the people who kept going and tried to see past the tragedy. Columbine definitely isn't the easiest book out there to read, but it is completely worth it - I recommend this to everyone who likes non-fiction/true crime books and especially to those who have been interested in venturing into non-fiction, but haven't found the title that could grasp their interest.


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