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.