Saturday, February 11, 2012

Another recent read: Columbine

Columbine by Dave Cullen

I was a little bit afraid to read this book, honestly, because I was afraid it would feel too close to home--or rather, work.  But I'm glad I read it; it was so good and I learned so much.  I don't remember much of the Columbine tragedy--mostly I remember the video of students being evacuated, running in single file away from the school.  I remember hearing the phrases reporters kept repeating on the news: "Goths", "snapped", "bullying." I was a college student at the time, only about a year or two older than the gunmen.  E and I had just gotten engaged days before the tragedy.  I remember reading the papers, seeing the photos of the victims in the paper.  I had little idea of anything that transpired in the years following.  I had little idea how much of the original story was totally wrong.

I couldn't put the book down. I read it entirely in one sitting, even though it's about 400 pages long.  I found my mind wandering back and forth between the thought that this could happen at just about any school and the conflicting feeling that this was such a unique incident because of the psychopathy of Eric Harris.  Clearly I haven't managed to separate myself from the issue (as a high school teacher, I don't think I ever will), and clearly I wasn't just able to read this book in terms of purely looking at its construction.  But it's an amazing piece of writing.  Though I kind of turned off that part of my brain, I know that I was able to do so because I was in good hands.  Cullen tells the story skillfully in a way that doesn't feel exploitative or gruesome, just honest.

The book traces the significant events leading up to the tragedy, and the day itself, but he also follows the lives of those affected after it ended.  I'll admit I was wholly unaware of much of the story related to how law enforcement handled the case and how the churches in the area had such an impact on public perception and reaction.  The legal battles alone were so complex, as were the decisions related to how information was released.

This was an incredible book and an incredible piece of journalism.  Cullen is so thorough and the book is fascinating.  What is particularly riveting about this book is how he contrasts public perception of the incident at Columbine with the reality which would quietly surface years later.  It feels as though Cullen really tried to present the full story with as little bias as possible, even though he himself was among the reporters that originally (and inadvertently) create many of the myths we all came to accept as the facts of Columbine.  All parties are presented in an honest light.  This is an important book--so many of us accept what we heard in the week following the tragedy, and so little of it is true.

My recommendation: Definitely read this one if you haven't already.  It's an important look at something we all think we understand, and the book is done so well.

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