Thursday, January 6, 2011

by Dave Cullen

This is the way nonfiction is supposed to be written.

It doesn’t all have to be funny, ala Bill Bryson or Mary Roach, but it should be more than just an informative list of facts. I think that often, nonfiction writers’ greatest flaw is that they try to cram too much into their books. They spend years researching something and they want to squeeze in every piece of information they find, even if it hurts the book’s pacing and flow.

Columbine doesn’t fall into that trap. Ten years after the tragic school shooting in Colorado, Cullen’s book gives us the whole picture without overwhelming us. Even though I knew the outcome going into the book, it still managed to keep me enthralled throughout. The plotting, the information, the descriptions, the balanced views, it was all so well done.

Cullen was a young reporter on the scene when Eric and Dylan, two high school students, opened fire on their fellow students. The author manages to keep his personal experience and opinions out of the book entirely, which can be incredibly difficult when you devote a decade of your life to the material.

There were a few facts that really surprised me. First, Eric and Dylan (particularly Eric) had multiple reports filed with the police because of various crimes or threats they had committed. There was even a drafted warrant for Eric’s home that was never sent to a judge. If someone had looked closer at his life or listened to a particular family that he had been threatening, who knows what might have been prevented.

Second, the “She Said Yes” girl who was killed in the library… didn’t say yes. Cassie’s martyrdom was one of the most enduring elements of Columbine and it turns out that’s not what happened at all. Another girl was asked if she believed in God, she said no, then yes, but she wasn’t killed because something else distracted Eric. Cassie was shot and killed, but no one asked her a question first. It may seem unimportant, but because of this confusion, people thought the girl who was actually asked that question was just copying Cassie’s story and many people didn’t believe her. How awful would that have been?

I was a high school student when the shootings happened and I remember them so well. When I started the book I was dreading it. I’m not a news hound and I didn’t want to rehash the tragedy, but the book doesn’t do that. Instead it clarifies the confusions and explains what happened, both from the killers’ perspective and the community’s. Whether you consider yourself a nonfiction reader or not, Columbine is a powerful book.


gm said...

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

BookQuoter said...

I have read good reviews about this book. I try to read a non-fiction at least once a month. I have been hesitant to read this, but maybe I should.

Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

"It doesn’t all have to be funny, ala Bill Bryson or Mary Roach, but it should be more than just an informative list of facts." Wholeheartedly agree! Not sure I’d want to re-live that particular event with a whole book, though…

B said...

Wow I really want to read this now. I'm all about powerful and moving non-fiction. Zeitoun was like that for me last year and this sounds very interesting. On my TBR! Great review.

Becky Hill said...

I thought that Cullen did a great job too developing why the tragedy occurred exploring psychopathy in understandable passages. I also thought that he did a terrific job showing just how much this tragedy impacted the victims' lives over a long period of time. It was an amazingly well written book.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

gm - Thanks for sharing that info.

BookQuoter - This would be a great one, esp if you can only get to one a month.

Alexandra - I was worried about that too. I was a freshman in high school when it happened and I didn't want to "re-live" it, but I'm glad I did. It gave me a much bette runderstanding of the whole thing.

Brenna - I loved Zeitoun too, so you'll probably like this one.

Becky - I really liked seeing a bit about the victims down the road too. I thought that added a lot of depth to the book.

Lisa said...

Avid Reader, I've been urging everyone who has read Cullen's book to please give three other books on the same subject a try. And that's mostly because I fear that the people who have read Cullen's "Columbine" will think that what Cullen wrote is the absolute truth, that he had all the facts and wrote them down as such. Nothing could be further from the truth. "Columbine" isn't a horrible book but it is flawed and inaccurate and should not be accepted as the "definitive" book on the subject because it's anything but.

There are three other books that have been written about Columbine and while they're not perfect either, in my opinion they give a more accurate depiction of the events surrounding the attack on Columbine High School. The books are "Comprehending Columbine" by Ralph Larkin, "Columbine: A True Crime Story" by Jeff Kass (a staff writer for Denver's Rocky Mountain News who has covered the Columbine story since the very beginning) and "No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death At Columbine" by Brooks Brown. The latter is more of a memoir by one of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's classmate and friend. The first two books take a much more in-depth and accurate look than Cullen's book at what happened at Columbine and why. Larkin's book in particular makes a very strong case for the fact that indeed Harris and Klebold were bullied during their four years at Columbine and that this was probably a strong factor in why they attacked their school. Cullen would have you believe otherwise because it (the two boys being bullied) doesn't fit in with his preferred profile of them. So he's conveniently ignored evidence and recounts of their being bullied by eyewitnesses and simply leaves it out of his book. Larkin and Kass include these facts in their books, and more that Cullen doesn't.

It's my hope that anyone who has read or is contemplating reading Cullen's book will go on to read the three books that I've mentioned. The books will give them a better and more accurate look at what happened at Columbine.

Trisha said...

I keep going back and forth on whether to read this. I'm not sure I actually want a more accurate idea of what happened at Columbine (as horrid as that sounds); it's just so depressing.

Dave Cullen said...

Hi, thanks for the thoughtful review of my book, Avid. I think you captured it nicely.

And special thanks for calling me "a young reporter." I turn 50 this month and my family informed me they are planning a big party for me to celebrate, and it has me a bit unnerved, truthfully. (I felt great about 30, and OK with 40, but 50 is the first one I feel yucky about.) So that actually made my day.

And for any teacher--or students out there--we’ve had a lot of interest on using the book in school, so we’re trying to make that easier. I spent a good chunk of the fall creating the Columbine Instructor Guide and Columbine Student Guide. They are now online and free. Please consider spreading the word. Thanks.

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks for the nice comments. And interesting to see my little anti-Dave posse back in gear after the holiday. (They took a break from following me around the web to disparage my book.)

FYI, GM is the Denver businessman who published the book he's plugging. The two sources he cites were written by the same guy, and by clipping the quotes there, they are misleading. Lisa is a just a reader who hates my book for some reason, and is frustrated by the reviews it got.

Starviego, my favorite conspiracy theorist should be arriving shortly to inform you that there were actually close to a dozen shooters. (Seriously. Sorry about that.)

Becky, I'm glad you liked the book. Trisha, Bookquoter, Alexandra and Brenna, I hope you like it if you do get a chance to read it. (And if you post about it, look forward to Lisa, GM and Starviego stopping by. Haha. Enjoy my little friends. Best to look on the bright side. GM will use the exact same words, with that odd space before the first comma, but Lisa will do a little rewriting.)

Trisha, Bookquoter, Alexandra and anyone else on the fence, there are a few ways to test the waters. Oprah picked the book for her summer reading list, and we let her excerpt the first chapter on her site. (O Mag's really nice review is also there. (Don't tell Lisa. Haha.) We also gave two excerpts to Slate. I gathered links to all three here:

The quickest/best way though, may be to watch the 3-minute intro video here:

(A guy from the SouthPark team made it for us, and I thought he did a wonderful job. He spent a day filming me and actually figured out how to make me appear concise. Haha.)

Thanks again for all the interest. It's great to see people still discovering the book. I appreciate it.

Jenners said...

I'm with you .. this was an exceptional book that is a model for how non-fiction/journalistic books should be done. And he is such a dedicated author ... I see he has been here (along with his gang of detractors). : )

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Dave - Well Happy 50th b-day! You definitely don't look that old and it's all about being young at heart, right? Thanks for including the additional resources and for explaining GM and Lisa's comments. I looked up a few other reviews and you're right, they really do follow you everywhere! Congrats again on the success of your book. You really did an excellent job.

Jenners - You're review was the final tipping point that encouraged me to read this. I'm so glad I did!

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks, Avid. Even better to hear! Haha.

And my brain must have hiccuped. I meant to say my 50th is this YEAR (in June), and my family divulged plans last month. (I think I conflated those thoughts.) They wanted to do a surprise party, but since I'm in NYC and nearly all of them (I have eight siblings) are near Chicago, that would have been tough to pull off.

Anyway, it was WAY sooner than I planned to think about the 50 business. Yuck. But I'm glad I look young! I feel young, too. Mostly.

And yes, I do have my little posse, don't I? Haha. (Don't you think it's comical that gm has posted that maybe 300-400 times, and still hasn't noticed the extra space before the comma? It looks really odd and kind of gives away his cut/paste job. Anyone can make a typo, even when they're cutting up copy to misrepresent. But how many times will he post it before he figures it out? I think it's pretty funny.

Dave Cullen said...

And I loved Jenners' review, too.

It's kind of cool to see how word of the book travels through the web, BTW. This is a whole new world for publishing. We're still figuring it out, but this is nice.

mari said...

This sounds like an interesting book and I'm adding it to my list. I just read Simon Lelic's novel A Thousand Cuts which centers around a school killing - a teacher commits the crime in this story - that takes place in the UK. Have you read it? I couldn't help but think of Columbine and VA Tech while reading it.

Captain Nick Sparrow said...

I think I'd like to read this too. I worked in advertising when the shootings happened, but now I'm a teacher. I think it would be interesting to rehash it with a new perspective of school community.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Dave - Well enjoy the party in June! It sounds like a wonderful chance to spend time with family. It is amusing that gm just keeps coping the same comment. Doesn't speak to his intelligence.

Mari - I haven't read that one, I'll add it to my list. The best fictional account of a school killing I've ever read is "We Need to Talk About Kevin." It's an amazing book.

Captain - I'm sure it will seem completely different from your new vantage point.

It was heartbreaking to hear all of the news about Tucson shooting this past weekend. I kept thinking about different parts of the book and how the media covered the Columbine shooting.