Monday, August 02, 2010

Booknote: Columbine

This is my review of the book as I wrote it over in my GoodReads profile. It reads like a thriller story; Cullen does an excellent job in terms of narrative style. This could have been a very dry and technical book, but Cullen brings humanity to it. It is a book that must be read for what it can teach us as well.

ColumbineColumbine by Dave Cullen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is definitely a must-read. The only pity, in a manner of speaking, is that it took as long as it did to come out and reveal the truth about the events at Columbine High School. The author does an excellent job of digging deeply into the various sources-- subjects interviewed, police and other expert reports, press coverage, etc.-- to give an accurate and very chilling picture of what really happened at Columbine and how it happened. The book also provides the answer that eluded people for a long time: why did Harris and Klebold do what they did.

This book will move you at times. It may make you angry at times, and it will engage you as a reader. The book is not only a look at the events and an analysis, but it is also a very well written narrative that can be read a bit like a thriller. It is very well researched, and readers will find extensive endnotes as well as good bibliography at the end of the book for those wanting to do further reading or verify some of the arguments and ideas presented in the book. The book also presents a very dramatic human story. There is tragedy, but there is also deceit. For example, the local police engaged in serious efforts to cover up various items and facts, and a certain memoir embraced by evangelicals is pretty much based on a myth (and they knew it but chose to go to press anyways). There is neglect in various stages that may lead readers to consider (I would say fairly accurately) that the tragedy could have been stopped; Harris and Klebold had previous contacts with law enforcement that were not paid serious attention for instance.

Overall, this may well become a definitive book on the topic, and it should be required reading in schools of education. It does illustrate the idea that it can indeed happen anywhere, and it shatters the usual stereotypes (some goth kid going on a spree, revenge on jocks, etc.). This is a book I highly recommend but be prepared to be challenged. Be ready to learn a new thing or two, and be prepared to reflect and consider how such events can be prevented in the future.

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Other details and thoughts that caught my attention as I was reading, that I did not include in the review for GR but jotted down in the updates: 

  • The press to a large measure failed. Much like today, they would speculate when they lacked facts, often more worried in breaking the news than actually getting things right. Some things never seem to change. 
  • From page 125, this is something not many think about, assuming they even knew about the bombs Harris and Klebold made and deployed, which failed to explode. The event was not really a shooting; it was a bombing that failed.
  • Things that made me angry as I read: cops covering up facts and reports in order to preserve an image or being more concerned about how they would be seen than doing what was right. Many detectives put in excellent work only to have their superiors hide it for various reasons of self-interest. A significant number of evangelicals used the tragedy more to proselytize aggressively instead of comforting their communities when they most needed (this even disturbed other mainline protestants in the area). That they embraced the Bernall myth so easily angered me too because it was about keeping a certain image rather than seeking truth. 
  • Harris and Klebold had left signs all over the place. For instance, Harris had a website with various specific, detailed threats on it. This was mostly ignored or buried at the time. 

Update note (10/19/10): Liz B. at A Chair, A Fireplace, &a Tea Cozy read the book and provides an excellent and well-written review that is worth reading. 


    Lisa said...

    "Overall, this may well become a definitive book on the topic, and it should be required reading in schools of education." God forbid. That's just what I'm afraid of, Cullen's book becoming "the" definitive book on Columbine.

    Of the four that I've read dealing exclusively with the subject of the Columbine attack Dave Cullen's book is the weakest, in my opinion. I believe his research to be faulty at times (his reliance on the very unreliable Brenda Parker to establish that Eric Harris was sexually active is just one such problem) and his attempt to write from the killer's viewpoints from time to time made this reader feel downright squeamish; teenage boy-speak is not his thing, definitely. I did like some things about "Columbine", such as Cullen's explanation of how eyewitnesses can sometimes get details wrong. But overall I feel the book pales in comparison to three others on the same subject. If you can stand to read any more books on the same subject I would recommend these, highly: "Comprehending Columbine" by Ralph Larkin, "No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine" by Brooks Brown and "Columbine: A True Crime Story" by Jeff Kass. None of those three are perfect by any means (I'm of the opinion that the "definitive" book on Columbine has yet to be written) but IMHO they're all better than Cullen's. I urge you and any of your blog readers to give them a try.

    Also, if you haven't already you might want to read Randy Brown's review of Cullen's book. Brown is Brooks's father (Brooks wrote one of the above books I mentioned) and probably has spent even more time than Cullen researching what happened at Columbine. He despises Cullen's book; Brown says that it's filled with errors and all but calls it "a work of fiction". You can read his review here:

    Angel, librarian and educator said...

    Lisa: I would find Brown suspicious right away if for no other reason than he would have a very vested interest (he tried to warn the authorities, which comes out in Cullen's book, only to find he was not listened to). So I am sure he would dislike Cullen's book. As for calling it fiction, the Cullen book does seem pretty well documented and verifiable. Since there is still at least one more report not to be released 'til 2027 or so (if I recall correctly), we may indeed have to wait for yet another book.

    Anyhow, the suggestions provided are noted. I may not personally get to another Columbine book (it may take some time for me to get back into being able to read on this kind of topic) for a while, but I am sure readers out there will wish to read other books and compare.


    starviego said...

    The big secret about Columbine is that there were more involved than just Harris and Klebold. Don’t believe me? Just ask the eyewitnesses: