Today I finished reading Columbine by Dave Cullen (amazon | indigo), one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Cullen breaks down everything you think you know about the shooting at Columbine high school ten years ago and starts the story over again. Telling in equal parts the buildup to the shooting and the aftermath of it, he manages to turn a decade-old news story into something you can’t put down.

As I’ve said before, it’s important to understand why people do things like what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did, without resorting to the easy (and dangerous) label of “monster”. They weren’t crazed loners, they weren’t bullied, they weren’t part of a black-clad gang, and they didn’t “snap” and suddenly start shooting. It was a long, complicated plan executed by a full-fledged psycopath and his depressive sidekick.

While Cullen maintains professional distance throughout the book, he can’t hide his disgust with the media, for manufacturing so much incorrect information. He singles out the Washington Post and Rocky Mountain News for doing good work, but his criticism for how the incident was reported among most of the media is clear. There’s also a marked difference in the portrayal of some of the churches. Some of the area religious leaders come across as opportunistic, trying to profit and recruit from the tragedy, while others were criticized for preaching forgiveness.

Columbine should be required reading for those who think they know what happened at Columbine ten years ago, or for anyone who wants to understand better the dangers of media furor.

Why I don't have favourite books

Do you have a favourite book?

I don’t think I do. I have favourite films. I have favourite songs. But I don’t have favourite books.

That’s not to say there aren’t tons of great books that I was really in love with. I just wouldn’t describe them as favourites. I’m not sure exactly how I define that word, or how my definition might differ from the standard interpretation, but I would loosely describe it this way: a favourite is something I will go back to again and again. I have watched the 13 films referenced in the above link countless times, just as I’ve listened to the songs in the other link so many times I have them all memorized down to the quarter note. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve read any book twice.

So why is that? Well, I think I’m looking for something different in books than I get from films or music. I want to be challenged, I want to learn something, I want to have my mind changed. I suppose this is why I also don’t have a ‘favourite’ documentary, even though I usually prefer them to feature films. I expect from a documentary the same thing I expect from a book: to get my brain going.

Maybe that’s the difference. It’s hard to label something a ‘favourite’ when it might push me, challenge me, make me work. None of my favourite movies or music qualify as terribly difficult or avant-garde, but they all impressed me with their artistry or nuance (yes, even Hoosiers) while still being entertaining. A great book or documentary will teach me something, or disturb me, or change my mind about something…but none of those impacts will make me want to go back to it. The moment is passed, the effect has been felt.

But that documentary vs. feature film distinction tells me something about my books: that I prefer non-fiction to fiction. Truth be told, I buy and read much more non-fiction than fiction; were I to consume as many novels as I do films or albums I would almost certainly have a list of favourite books, but as it is the books I remember having a real impact on me were all non-fiction. Much as I distinctly remember them, I can’t say I feel the need to read any of them again.

What I do crave, and what I’ve missed recently when reading A Fine Balance, enjoyable as it was, is the engagement I get from non-fiction books. Reading a book the likes of The Coming Of The Third Reich or The Shock Doctrine makes my mind race about in all directions, to the point where I have to re-read paragraphs because I’ve wandered off on this tangent or that, formulating questions or testing hypotheses. I don’t get that same engagement from fiction — which is often a testament to the writer’s pacing or narrative skill, but also reflects the nature of fiction. It’s a story, not a study.

When I finished the MBA last year, I figured that my brain was starved for fiction after reading textbooks for so many months, but it turns out I’m still hungry for non-fiction. I’m easing back into it with Almost Home by Damien Echols (the member of the West Memphis 3 on death row), and plan to read Dave Cullen‘s Columbine (which I blogged about last week) next. After that I may take up Niall Ferguson‘s The Ascent Of Money or The Age Of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. Or I may finally pick up Don Tapscott‘s Wikinomics or resume my study of the buildup to WWII with The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s by Piers Brendon. All of those appeal to me more than the copies of Absalom, Absalom or American Pastoral sitting on my shelf.

For now, anyway.

"Kids had never been attacked in this kind of way"

Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of Columbine, the familiar title given the killings at the Columbine high school in Littleton, Colorado. CNN yesterday ran a piece about the release of a new bookColumbine, by Dave Cullen — which I’ve been meaning to pick up. The big draw of the book for me is that is tells the real story of what happened and debunks many of the myths which sprung up in the immediate aftermath. Among them:

  • There was a group of kids at Columbine called the Trench Coat Mafia, but Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren’t part of it.
  • The killers did not target jocks (those wearing baseball hats, as it’s sometimes reported) or black kids. There was no discernible pattern to their killing.
  • Harris and Klebold, though clearly unstable and dangerous, were not outcasts or loners, nor was their rampage apparently caused by bullying.
  • Cassie Bernall, reported to have been killed when she replied to the killers that she believed in god and subsequently made a martyr by evangelical christians, in fact said no such thing. Another student was asked whether she believed in god; she answered yes, was shot and lived.

The first three myths are explained by psychologists in the CNN article as being persistent because they were (irresponsibly) reported immediately after the killing, and are convenient for people to believe because they point to Harris and Klebold being misanthropes, different from everyone else, conveniently monstrous. People don’t like to think that normal people can do terrible things, so they cast them as evil. While not logical, this is understandable as a coping mechanism.

The last myth, though…that’s the one that gets me. By the fall of 1999 it was well established that the rumour about Bernall was false, but her parents still earned royalties from a book about her death called She Said Yes released in Aug 1999 (and reprinted several times) and earned $3,500 per speaking appearance in the years since. Misinformation is one thing; exploitation another.