Timeline of an American Tragedy: Columbine by Dave Cullen

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I had just turned eight only a month before. On April 20, 1999, I came home from school, like so many of us would, to see endless news coverage of the breaking story.  I didn’t understand quite what was going on, but the incident, the image of terror out on the lawn of a high school, is not something I’ve forgotten over the years, especially with the way history keeps repeating.

At its occurrence, Columbine was the worst school shooting in history and remained so for years. While it’s been surpassed in the time since, its shadow lingers. People are still fascinated and confused by what happened. Dave Cullen’s Columbine sheds a light on the story that I, and I’m sure plenty of others, can use to navigate just what happened that morning.

Cullen’s work is written in a way that keeps readers’ attention, taking us through the timeline in a well-crafted, non-linear way. Between chapters on the shooting and its years of aftermath, we’re shown the events leading up to the disaster and the factors in Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s lives that contributed. It’s an excellent back and forth, keeping the story from becoming weighed down by traditional narrative structure.

Maybe it’s a result of my age at the time, but there were so many details that I’d never known before, from the bombs the two boys attempted to use to the truth that they were not, as the media would repeat, bullied loners exacting revenge on their (jock) tormentors. Their attack was indiscriminate. It was fueled by Eric’s unrepentant hatred for humanity and Dylan’s devastating struggle with depression. It’s a story we think we know from the echoes of nearly two decades, and these flawed beliefs are still prevalent. Columbine teaches readers a necessary lesson otherwise.

This book is so thorough and immersive, without being an overwhelming dump of facts, that unless you were there, I’m willing to be it’ll teach you something new. I’d also wager that these revelations will leave you even more upset over the ordeal than anticipated. Cullen covers the lives of victims, the police response, and the affected families, including those of Dylan and Eric. Each story is enraging and heartbreaking, but also riveting and necessary.

In the revised/expanded edition of 2016, Cullen added “more scans of the killers’ writing and sample pages from the Columbine Teachers’ Guide [he] created.” The book does not include graphic photos; the descriptions of the horror are likely enough for the average reader. (Nonetheless, I will admit to looking up news footage online while reading one night; I ended up with nightmares.) These added materials, however, add another layer to what Cullen has to tell about Dylan and Eric. To read excerpts in the clean text of a professionally bound book is good. To read their hatred and frustrations in their own hand is a whole other experience that can send chills just as easily as a photo might.

You don’t need to be a true crime addict to experience this book, though it won’t hurt. Rather than being dry and laden with facts, this book is crafted to be accessible, educational, and illuminating. Dave Cullen paints such a picture of the entire tragedy that is clearer than anything I’ve experienced on the topic before (including high school assemblies and the Bowling for Columbine documentary), and if you have any desire to learn about the event, let this be your first resource.


February 10, 2017
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  • davecullen

    Thank you! I really appreciate that.

  • davecullen

    BTW, that’s a really lovely display. 🙂

    I’m also working on a new ‘end screen’ for my Columbine book trailer. (Still figuring out how that works. 🙂 )

    I would love it if you would link to it. Thanks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EA22SKaQ5hU (All the better if you can use “Columbine” or “Columbine video” as the anchor text.

    • Thank you! I’ll be sure to share it over on my Facebook page. 🙂

  • I was nine and I honestly don’t remember hearing that much about it at the time. Probably because my mom watched the news when me and my younger brothers weren’t around to see it. So because of that I also don’t really know many of the details. Definitely interested in reading this.

    • My dad always watched the news with me around (also, horror movies when I was like five? Which might explain a lot), so I knew the basics pretty early on. I definitely recommend checking out the book if you get a chance, though. It’s a bit thick, but because it’s very thorough, and the appendix actually takes up a good portion of the book overall.

  • Kay

    I was 11, and definitely remember this happening, but it wasn’t something that we ever discussed at length. We did talk about it in school in a very small meeting, which was more just the school providing counseling for anyone who wanted it. I just remember feeling confusion more than anything. Not about what happened, but the motivation, the ‘why would someone do this?’ At 11, I didn’t exactly have much depth of knowledge of mental health, but I remember being horrified at such a level of violence.

    This is a book I think I’d really like to read at some point, but definitely not soon. Though it may sound lame, mentally I don’t think I could handle it at the moment!

    • I do not blame you. Even on a “normal” day, this book is a tough read, especially knowing that it’s all true. While I definitely recommend it, it’s definitely one that can require a safe space and the right mindset before you dive into it.

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