Reviews of Columbine
Columbine appeared on two dozen Best of 2009 lists. I really appreciate support like that for my first book.
Excerpts are here from every major review we could find online, and some others. Links included where available. Awards here (also bestseller lists).
Three years later:
In December 2012, the LA Times ran a story titled Essential reading after Newtown: Columbine by Dave Cullen. Excerpts:
"The story of what happened Friday when 20 children and seven adults were killed has been written and rewritten, and it probably will be rewritten again. Much can be learned from journalist Dave Cullen's illuminating 2009 book Columbine, a deeply researched history of the 1999 Colorado shootings that proved much of what we thought we knew about them was wrong. . . . Cullen's book was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize, won the Edgar Award for nonfiction, made bestseller lists and racked up a string of other accolades. 'Indeed, if Cullen's book offers any overarching lesson,' [David] Ulin wrote, 'it's that some stories can only be demystified by taking the long view—especially a story as troublesome and complicated as this.' "
"What's amazing is how much of Cullen's book still comes as a surprise. I expected a story about misfits exacting vengeance, because that was my memory of the media consensus — Columbine, right, wasn't there something going on there between goths and jocks? In fact, Harris and Klebold were killing completely at random that day. Their victims weren't the intended targets at all; the entire school was."
"The definitive account, however, will likely be Dave Cullen's COLUMBINE, a nonfiction book that has the pacing of an action movie and the complexity of a Shakespearean drama . . . Cullen has a gift, if that's the right word, for excruciating detail. At times the language is so vivid you can almost smell the gunpowder and the fear. . . . The Columbine killers were a strange and deeply disturbed pair, right out of a Truman Capote book. We've heard plenty of the details about Klebold and Harris—their fixation with the Nazis, their lust for violence, the homemade tapes in which they laid out their grand scheme for us to watch later—but Cullen, despite all odds, manages to humanize them. . . . Cullen also debunks some of the biggest fallacies."
"Like Capote's In Cold Blood, this tour de force gets below the who and what of a horrifying incident to lay bare the devastating why."
"It's a book that hits you like a crime scene photo, a reminder of what journalism at its best is all about. Cullen knows his material from the inside; he covered Columbine, for Salon and Slate primarily, 'beginning around noon on the day of the attack.' But if this gives him a certain purchase on the story, his perspective is what resonates . . . That's tricky ground for a writer to navigate, to ask, if not for understanding, for compassion for two boys regarded as monsters. But Cullen makes it work because he insists on framing the killers in human terms . . . As Cullen argues, it was easy to buy into the narratives already in place: tales of bullying and alienation, of tension between rival cliques. That's the problem with quick-hit journalism, a style of reporting COLUMBINE convincingly refutes. Indeed, if Cullen's book offers any overarching lesson, it's that some stories can only be demystified by taking the long view -- especially a story as troublesome and complicated as this."
"You may want to leave the horror behind you--that may be why you haven't yet picked up Columbine, journalist Dave Cullen's spectacularly gripping account of the Colorado school shooting that shocked America a decade ago. But Cullen's chilling narrative is too vital to miss, as are his myth-busting revelations: No, the killers were not social outcasts; there was no broader conspiracy; and, yes, the authorities should have known. Read this book for its unflinching honesty, and for the satisfaction, however grim, of setting the record straight."
"Definitive . . . a staggering feat of reporting that completes and corrects the record in equal measure. Given the historical nature of the shootings, this makes COLUMBINE a needed book. Cullen scrupulously clears the plaque of unfact that's settled and hardened over the Columbine narrative in the last ten years . . . Even those who consider themselves well versed in the tragedy may be surprised . . . It's unfailingly crisp, clean, and convincing . . . Unless Harris's or Klebold's parents open themselves up to some future chronicler (which is highly unlikely), COLUMBINE will remain the single best explanation of the what, how, and why of April 20, 1999."
— Andrew Corsello, GQ
"I defy anyone who is a parent of a teenager, especially a teenage boy, to read Dave Cullen's COLUMBINE with any kind of dispassion or objectivity. Because for all that the book is a meticulous retelling of the horrific 1999 high-school shooting, complete with groundbreaking analysis of all the myths that have sprung up around that event, it is primarily—at least for this parent of a teenager—a portrait of the two who perpetrated it . . . Dave Cullen is a great journalist—he was one of the first on the scene that April day, and has spent the past ten years interviewing hundreds of survivors, victims' families, police, and psychologists to produce this definitive account—and he's adept at psychological insight. He probes, he compares, he makes a valiant effort to understand . . . is a riveting read, on a par with the greatest crime analysis from In Cold Blood or The Stranger Beside Me—but without the personal asides. It's particularly trenchant in the passages that recreate the events of that day . . . meticulously heartbreaking in its detail . . . Columbine exists on a meta level as well, as a journalist's exploration of the way even the most well-meaning reporters can conflate a story and get it wrong . . . Columbine doesn't seem to care about being good copy. It is complicated, allows many points of view, and raises more questions than it, or any account of such a complex event, could ever hope to answer. It is also a great piece of journalism, the likes of which we rarely see anymore."
"This superb work of investigation looks to be a definitive account. Unfortunately for the craft of journalism, it is also a searing indictment of almost all the reporters and editors involved in the coverage—the author included. COLUMBINE, it should be said, is not intended primarily as a book of media criticism. The critique is so pervasive, however, that no reader can overlook it . . . The lesson for working journalists is obvious, but often remains undigested . . . Throughout his narrative, Cullen names names of news organizations and individuals who got the story wrong (and those who came close to getting it right). Reading the book carefully for these darts and laurels would constitute a rewarding exercise for any journalist. Beyond that worthy if gossipy exercise, the author's investigative reporting techniques are on abundant display, not only in the text but in the forty pages of endnotes and bibliography. COLUMBINE promises to be a classic of in-depth journalism—with, again, some sobering evidence of how widely journalists can miss the mark."
"In this remarkable account of the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shooting, journalist Cullen not only dispels several of the prevailing myths about the event but tackles the hardest question of all: why did it happen? Drawing on extensive interviews, police reports and his own reporting, Cullen meticulously pieces together what happened when 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold killed 13 people before turning their guns on themselves. The media spin was that specific students, namely jocks, were targeted and that Dylan and Eric were members of the Trench Coat Mafia. According to Cullen, they lived apparently normal lives, but under the surface lay "an angry, erratic depressive" (Klebold) and "a sadistic psychopath" (Harris), together forming a "combustible pair." They planned the massacre for a year, outlining their intentions for massive carnage in extensive journals and video diaries. Cullen expertly balances the psychological analysis— enhanced by several of the nation's leading experts on psychopathology— with an examination of the shooting's effects on survivors, victims' families and the Columbine community. Readers will come away from Cullen's unflinching account with a deeper understanding of what drove these boys to kill, even if the answers aren't easy to stomach."
— Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Dave Cullen, a journalist who disseminated mistaken information for a while and then decided to get it right, has written a remarkable book. It is painstakingly reported, well-organized and compellingly written . . . For any reader who wants to understand the complicated nature of evil, this book is a masterpiece."
"Comprehensively nightmarish . . . Cullen's task is difficult not only because the events in question are almost literally unspeakable but also because even as he tells the story of a massacre that took the lives of 15 people, including the killers, he has to untell the stories that have already been told . . . Should this story be told at all? There's an element of sick, voyeuristic fascination to it--we don't need an exercise in disaster porn. But Columbine is a necessary book. . . . The actual events of April 20, 1999, are exactly as appalling as you'd expect, and Cullen doesn't spare us a second of them."
"Like Capote's In Cold Blood, this is a vivid exploration of the broken logic that drove two young men to commit a terrible, senseless crime. A stunning achievement-clear-eyed, compassionate, thoroughly researched. However much we may want to, we cannot afford to look away."
– Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight and The Legend of Colton H. Bryant.
"An astonishingly comprehensive look at the incident and the decade of struggle in its aftermath, which has included recovery and travail by survivors and the community, lawsuits and protracted attempts to get at the truth . . . Be forewarned that Cullen includes some blunt descriptions of the shootings, but those are far from a focal point of his book, which avoids sensationalism and carefully constructs a timeline of the events. It would be a rare and dubious distinction to complete COLUMBINE without shedding a tear, but in the violence and grieving and heart-wrenching side stories, this an American story deeply embedded in the national psyche . . . One of the significant achievements of Cullen's book is to let the truth contradict many popularly embedded ideas."
— Art Winslow, Chicago Tribune
"Read Columbine for the stunning reportage. Admire the heroism of students and teachers. Forgive, if you can, the police ineptitude and, later, their predictable cover-up. But pay particular attention to the back story: the evolution of two would-be mass murderers. And then, instead of feeling blessed that this nightmare didn't happen in your town, you might do better to ask yourself a variation of the line you hear on television at ten o'clock: Do you know who your children are?"
— Jesse Kornbluth, Huffington Post
"I'm happy to report that [Cullen] hit it out of the ballpark. . . Cullen's finest work is his portrayal of two killers he came to understand as well as if he had carpooled with them to bowling class or tossed pizzas with them at Blackjack's . . . If Columbine was analyzed beyond all recognition in 1999, it has taken a decade finally to hold a mirror to the wounds that still fester there. It turns out that some scabs in fact do need to be picked, but only with Cullen's brand of honesty, meticulousness and care."
"We don't like our evil to be banal. Ten years after Columbine, it only now may be sinking in that the psychopathic killers were not jock-hating dorks from a "Trench Coat Mafia," or, as ABC News maintained at the time, "part of a dark, underground national phenomenon known as the Gothic movement." In the new best seller Columbine, the journalist Dave Cullen reaffirms that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were instead ordinary American teenagers who worked at the local pizza joint, loved their parents and were popular among their classmates."
"Dave Cullen's Columbine is the more ambitious and ultimately compelling take on the tragedy . . . he breaks new ground . . . dispels myths . . . and makes us feel intensely for those who were killed and wounded."
Cullen offers answers culled from hundreds of interviews and official documents, and most are every bit as disturbing as anything you might imagine. . . It accomplishes an astonishing number of things in compelling, articulate prose -- Columbine is a powerful mea culpa, and Cullen's skill at negotiating the story's many facets leaves you with no choice but to read on with mounting outrage and horror.
Most remarkable is Cullen's ability to present an onslaught of facts while recreating such anguish and fear. Columbine is a valuable historic resource, but it roils the heart, too. It's impossible to numb wrenching emotion as you learn that Coach Dave Sanders bled to death over three hours while S.W.A.T. teams cleared the school and that the authorities left young Danny Rohrbough's body outside and uncovered for 28 hours.
What if the police had confiscated Harris' arsenal? Would they have prevented the massacre? We can never know. But we can read Cullen's meticulously researched and compassionate book as a powerful explanation of an American tragedy.
"Dark but compelling . . . Cullen's minute-by-minute account of the shootings is gripping, not to mention deeply disturbing . . . Cullen's humane approach, and especially his side trips into the recovery efforts of survivors, offers welcome perspective on what can be learned from this bleak tale."
"Beautifully written but deeply haunting . . . One of the virtues of Columbine, Dave Cullen's gripping study of the massacre, is the way it defuses many of these myths. . . . To his credit, Mr. Cullen does not simply tear down Columbine's legends. He also convincingly explains what really sparked the murderous rage. He labels Harris, the duo's alpha male, as a classic psychopath, a functioning human being completely lacking in conscience, empathy or emotional nuance. It is a condition that is not caused by trauma or environment, but rather is hard-wired into the psyche. Think of Shakespeare's Iago, operating with what Coleridge termed "motiveless malignity." . . . As for Klebold, his problems were less flamboyant but equally grave. He was a suicidal depressive who probably would have limited his death toll to one--himself--had he not known Harris. 'Dylan Klebold was not a man of action. He was conscripted by a boy who was.' Combined, these two personalities proved as combustible as the nitric and sulfuric acids that form nitroglycerine."
"Cullen humanizes the horror . . . While the details of the day are indeed gruesome, Cullen neither embellishes nor sensationalizes. His unadorned prose and staccato sections offer welcome relief from the grisly minutiae. In the way it reconstructs the disastrous web of police gaffes, missed confessions and tangled timelines, "Columbine" recalls "The Dark Side," Jane Mayer's stellar 2008 chronicle of the Bush administration's complicity in torture, more than the obvious predecessor, Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." Cullen's honor and reporting skills propel this book beyond tabloid and into true literature."