Author: Dave Cullen
Edition/Pages: Grand Central Publishing, April 2009/417 pages
Short & Sweet Synopsis: In a sentence, everything you ever wanted to know about the Columbine shooting.
If you’re even remotely interested in the Columbine massacre, you should read this book. It’s the only comprehensive book ever published on the attack, and explains almost everything you could ever want to know, moving back and forth between time periods every chapter or two to before the attack, during the attack, and after the attack.
Before the Attack
Outwardly, Eric and Dylan looked like normal young boys about to graduate. They were testing authority, testing their sexual prowess – a little frustrated with the dumbasses they had to deal with, a little full of themselves. Nothing unusual for high school.
The parts of the book focusing on before the attack take an in-depth look at the lives of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Outside of looking at their jobs, friends, schoolwork, and other daily commonalities, it looks at the formation of the massacre plan (called NBK by Harris and Klebold – an acronym for Natural Born Killers), the work displayed in their respective journals and the videos they made of themselves (some accompanied by psychological analysis), their transition from imagining crimes to committing them, their arrests and subsequent sentencing for theft, the surprising number of people they let in on the plan, and the files the police had on the boys up to two years before the massacre, among other things.
During the Attack
At 11:19 they opened the duffel bags at the top of the stairs, pulled out the shotguns, and strapped them to their bodies. They locked and loaded the semiautomatics. One of them yelled, “Go! Go!” Somebody, almost certainly Eric, opened fire.
Columbine offers a minute by minute recap of the attack, along with an explanation of all of the events. In the cases where the memories of the victims are unreliable or conflicting, it gives both sides of the story and the evidence supporting each. It also gives a thorough explanation of not only the killers’ movements but the concurrent movement of the teachers and other students throughout the school, as well as the police, SWAT, FBI, parents, and media outside.
After the attack
The country was transfixed. In the first ten days, newsmagazines on the four main broadcast networks devoted forty-three pieces to the attack. The shows dominated the ratings that week. CNN and Fox News charted the highest ratings in their history. A week afterward, USA Today was still running ten separate Columbine stories in a single edition. It would be nearly two weeks before the New York Times would print an issue without Columbine on Page 1.
Cullen doesn’t stop at Harris and Klebold’s suicides, but continues the narrative approximately five years into the future, growing slightly less detailed with each ensuing year. He describes the psychological reactions of not only the victims, but in many cases their families as well, the recovery process of the severely injured, the memorials to the fallen, the controversy over mourning the killers, the blame put on their parents, the law suits filed, etc., etc. He not only describes several of the victims’ daily existences in the wake of the attack to a satisfactory amount, but also gives us a glimpse of their modern lives, 11 years later.
A Non-Fiction Masterpiece
I would definitely recommend this book as one of the best true crime books I have ever read. I was somewhat hesitant to pick up this book, dreading a long, dry read that I couldn’t wait to finish, but I was happily disappointed on that count. Anybody who has the slightest curiosity as to what happened at Columbine: read this. Anybody who is interested in the psychology behind school shootings: also read this, it gives some good general information/misconceptions/psychological background on the subject. Anybody who likes a good true crime book: well, you should probably read this too. Good job, Dave Cullen; you gave the world one of the first real insights into the Columbine massacre. You gave us a peek into the lives of the Columbine killers before they were killers, and amazingly even made me feel sympathetic towards one of them (no, I’m not going to tell you guys which one – I think you should be able to figure it out if you read the book). This is the true story of the Columbine massacre – the only one without media sensationalism, and the one you should read before any other.
Just a note: If you’re expecting lots of gory pictures, you’re not going to get them. Honestly, I was expecting there would be at least a few, but there aren’t. This lends the book a sort of seriousness that other accounts don’t offer (again, it banishes the thought of involving the media’s dramatics).
Some thoughts from other book bloggers:
From Home Girl’s Book Blog: An investigative reporter, Cullen relies on scrupulously picked-over court records, eye-witness accounts, interviews, and the killers’ journals and home videos to unwrap the what, when, and how of April 20th, 1999 and the event’s frenzied aftermath of confusion, scandal, and factual incongruity.
From Reading Rants: I highly recommend this title for high school students AND their parents. Far from being a titillating tabloid text, this meticulously researched and sensitive tome works to further our understanding of a terrible event and underlines the fact that we are all responsible for each other and for monitoring the warning signs that can lead to such a fatal tragedy as Columbine.
From Page247: Dave Cullen…first visited Columbine High School at around noon on April 20th, 1999, the day of the shootings. He spent 9 years researching this book, listening to tapes, watching videos, reading journals and conducting interviews. Talking to students, parents and teachers, investigators and police. He dug deep and his reporting shows it. It come across as clear and balanced.
From Jenny’s Books: …if you’re like, damn, national tragedies are a downer; I’m only ever going to read one more national tragedy book for the whole rest of my life, then that book should be Columbine.