Review: Columbine, Dave Cullen

On Sunday, after a lovely day curled up under blankets in my pajamas eating and watching films, it occurred to me that it had been ages since I sat down and read a book cover to cover. There are few things I enjoy like I enjoy sitting down with a book and not getting up again until the book is finished. So after I caught up on teh blogz, I went into my living room and–

Well, I went into my living room and watched the Packers game. With the Saints out of it, I’m supporting the Packers for the remainder of the playoffs season. The Packers have an adorable rookie running back, James Starks. More to the point, their back-up quarterback, Matt Flynn, quarterbacked the football game that made me love football, in 2007. I will love him forever and support whatever team he joins for the rest of eternity. (Whenever I say I like a pro football team that isn’t the Saints, someone says “But what about the Saints?” Does this need saying? Obviously I support the Saints above anyone else. But a girl’s got to have a B team. The Packers are my B team.)

But after the Packers game (Packers won), my eye fell on my roommate’s copy of Dave Cullen’s Columbine, which she, along with my other roommate and Book Addiction Heather (Heathers of the world, how do you feel about the film Heathers?), had said was superb. So I picked it up and read it and didn’t get to bed until midnight.

Columbine is a painstaking, detailed journalistic account of the Columbine school shooting in 1999, covering the event itself, the decisions that led to it, and its aftermath. It’s a fast-paced book that attempts, I think quite successfully, to offer a fair, nuanced portrayal of the killers, the victims, the detectives, the school administrators, and the press. Cullen debunks myths and misconceptions about the Columbine shooting, but never without explaining where they came from in the first place (often from shaken-up kids with questionable memories).

I was extremely impressed with this book as a piece of reporting. Cullen acknowledges in his introduction that the misconceptions about Columbine were propagated by the media, and he notes that he was among the first reporters on the shooting, and thus among those who reported things that turned out to be untrue. It would be difficult to make more thorough amends for past errors in fact than Cullen does in writing this book. He is exceptionally thorough on his details, sympathetic to his subjects, and engaging but not voyeuristic in his writing style. Columbine is a wonderful book that you should read.

As far as connecting to the book emotionally, I didn’t so much. This is partly because I decided not to. I (unlike psychopaths, hooray!) have an extraordinarily active amygdala that jumps out of its seat and starts screaming “DANGER DANGER OMG DANGER LOOK OUT EEK DANGER” on the smallest provocation. When I know something is going to be upsetting, I try to give myself some critical distance to avoid stressing out my poor nervy amygdala. I kind of succeeded, but kind of not, as that night I woke up shaking from a nightmare where I was standing at a door waiting for something. That was the whole dream. I was standing in a room a few feet away from a door, and it was terribly frightening.

Partly, though, the emotional connection was lacking for me because Columbine happened a little while before I started paying attention to the news. My political consciousness began with the 2000 presidential election, and anything that happened before then made only the tiniest of ripples on the surface of my mind. I heard the phrase “trench coat mafia” at the time, for instance, but I don’t remember being quite clear on what it meant. I didn’t see any of the scary surveillance footage images, or contemplate the possibility of a shooter at my own school. (The administration must have, though; I just this minute made the causal connection between Columbine and the two or three “shooter-in-the-school” drills we had that year. Huh.) The myths that were being exploded had never taken root in my head in the first place.

If you are ever going to read a book about a national tragedy, it should be And the Band Played On. And then if you’re like, damn, national tragedies are a downer; I’m only ever going to read one more national tragedy book for the whole rest of my life, then that book should be Columbine. Lots of people agree with me, look.