From a professional standpoint, this semester has been my busiest yet. I’ve assumed a new role, I had a course overload, and a few of my courses were particularly heavy in terms of reading/prep load. A number of things fell by the wayside because of this new busyness, including my extracurricular reading. But this will not be a post about how busy I am. I refuse to buy into that mindset. I feel as if we are a culture obsessed with the idea of being busy, regardless of whether or not we really are. We are constantly telling others how busy we are, and we’re also always making sure that others feel guilty if they aren’t as busy as us. As a teacher, I’m used to being the recipient of this mindset. Instead of being happy for me, most of my friends display explicit bitterness and scorn at the thought of me getting off four weeks over the holidays or multiple months over the summer. They. Can’t. Believe it. “Must be nice…” is a refrain I hear on a regular basis. Yes, you’re right: It is nice. Thanks for reminding me. If you’re so miserable, pick a career that doesn’t make you mad all the time.
But that’s not the focus of this post.
The majority of my semester was spent in books for my classes. Many of these books were great, such as Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, another re-reading of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, and a wild, unexpected ride through Mo Yan’s Frog, a novel about China’s One Child Policy. But, somehow, a couple of weeks ago I found myself starting a book totally unrelated to class–and also totally unrelated to my normal type of reading. As soon as I finished that one, I started another that was equally removed from my norm. I’ve got thoughts about both; I’ll start with the latter.
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Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance (2016)
I’ve been aware of this book since it came out, mostly because it was always on bookshelves close to the entrances of bookstores. I didn’t know much about the actual content, but my familiarity with the cover was a clear indication that this book was selling widely and was being read and talked about by lots of people. I remember picking it up at one point, reading the first page or so, and being struck by Vance’s self-effacing opening lines about how he isn’t special and really has no idea why anyone would even read a book he wrote. I appreciate honesty like this, and I was intrigued, but I never bought it and I never read it. Until last week.
I found out that, via a card at my local library, I have access to free audiobooks. I’ve never been an audiobook person, but given the chance to scroll through titles that were free, I had no reason not to. One of the first books that the algorithm-based app Libby recommended to me was Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and since it was pretty short (under 7 hours), I “rented” it. A few days later, I had it finished. This is perhaps partly because I liked it, but I think more than anything it’s the reality of how easy it is to find time to listen to audiobooks. Between showering, getting dressed, cooking breakfast, and driving to work, it wasn’t hard for me to listen to at least an hour each morning. Throw in a trip to the gym and various other in-between times, and I had the book finished in less than a week.
I can see why the book has been such a big seller, and I also understand why Vance is someone that made the talk show circuits and has been interviewed by lots of various people and outlets over the past couple of years. In many ways, he’s a breath of fresh air. He writes a memoir that is by no means flattering or pretentious. One minute he’s talking about being a graduate of Yale law school, and in the next breath he’s giving a profanity-laden quote from his hillbilly grandmother or talking about his lack of knowledge about which spoon to use at a fancy restaurant. He seems like someone that would probably be fine going unrecognized, and he’d probably keep to himself at a party. I like this, and many people that write memoirs don’t put off this type of vibe.
At the same time, for some reason, the entire time I was reading the book, I found myself looking for reasons to not like it. And this isn’t because I am anti-hillbilly, nor is it because Vance announces halfway through that he’s a Republican. That has absolutely nothing to do with it. To be honest, I’m not sure why I quickly developed an antagonistic posture towards the book. Perhaps part of what I liked–his honest depiction of what he calls hillbilly culture–is also essentially what I didn’t like. He speaks very highly of his grandmother, and the book makes clear that Vance would be nowhere without her influence. But, for me, the parts that stick out the most to me about her are the ones where she berates an employee at a retail store for very little reason, or the extent to which she has no problem treating people horribly if she so much as sniffs what she perceives to be disrespect towards her family. To put it simply, Mamaw scared me, and I would undoubtedly do what pretty much everyone else in the book does when they confront her: I’d try not to make eye contact and would run away as quickly as possible. Vance makes a great case for why she’s so important to him, and by no means would I doubt his sincerity. But it’s hard for me to like her, and when she’s held up as the moral center of the text, that’s problematic for my own reading.
Ultimately, Vance seems to arrive at the following solution to the problems of working class white America: work harder and stop blaming other people for your problems. This isn’t a new answer, of course. Just because it’s not new, doesn’t mean it isn’t right. And I have no doubt that Vance’s solution is one that many people need to hear, and his advice should definitely be heeded. But I didn’t find the text to be particularly enlightening or jaw-dropping. To be fair, Vance told me in the first page that he didn’t plan on providing anything of the sort. Considering that, it’s my own fault for expecting something from the text that I’m told explicitly I won’t find. It’s the somewhat interesting story of a guy raised in working class Ohio that somehow ended up graduating from Yale law school–despite the odds–and doing quite well with this life. It’s fine. I doubt I’ll talk about it much, if at all, in the future.
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Columbine, by Dave Cullen (2009
This book blew me away. I bought it randomly after listening to a podcast I like (Literary Disco). The hosts were talking about a recent list that Vulture made about the best books of the 21st century, and one of them mentioned Columbine as a blatant omission from Vulture‘s choices. I knew about the book, I think, but not much; the way the host talked about the book simply made it impossible for me to not buy it. I immediately went on Amazon and placed the order, and when it arrived to my office two days later, I casually turned to the first page, as I always do. This rarely happens for me, but that first page immediately had me sucked in. It’s a big book. I mean this literally: it’s physical form is larger than the standard, so the pages are bigger. To put it another way: the audiobook version is around 14 hours or so (twice as long as the 270 page Hillbilly Elegy). A normal book of this length would take me many weeks to read; I read Columbine in less than ten days.
In one sense, the book is very easy to describe: it’s a detailed account of the before, during, and after of the Columbine High School shooting on April 20, 1999. It looks at all parties involved–victims, survivors, parents, law enforcement, and the killers–to give a comprehensive look of what took place. In another sense, though, the book is impossible to describe. Cullen writes in a way that I’ve never experienced, especially in nonfiction. The book is all over the place. It makes quick, large-scale geographical, chronological, and biographical jumps. In the same page you might read about what one victim was wearing, what test a survivor was studying for, and what street a police officer was turning onto. Then, on the next page. you might be in the home of a grieving mother two years later, or in the basement of one of the killers’ houses three months prior. To say that Cullen leaves no stone unturned would be an understatement; the level of research and reporting in the novel is exhaustive, and at times even exhausting. At others, the text reads like a high-suspense thriller–even more impressive considering the reader knows exactly what the outcome is going to be. There are parts that seemed like slugging through minutiae, but others that had me involved as much as any other text I’ve ever read. At one point, I sat down and read straight for two hours on my couch. This is not the way I read. Ever. But I simply couldn’t put this down.
Beyond the reading experience, though, the book is hugely powerful for the manner in which it rewrites the all-too-quickly-written narrative of what actually happened in the Denver suburbs on that benign day in April 1999. I was in 7th grade when the shootings occurred, meaning I’m old enough to remember the media coverage and the worldwide phenomenon the event became. And I am testament to the narrative that that coverage solidified: the two killers were bullied loners intent on killing jocks and pretty girls. They were misunderstood outcasts that had no outlet for their anger and decided to seek vengeance via guns and pipe bombs on a Tuesday morning. Some of that narrative is true: there were two killers, they were intent on killing, and we misunderstood them. But most of the narrative that we have about Columbine is demonstrably false. Ultimately, this is the true heart and value of Cullen’s text, because it points out the extent to which we care less about truth and fact than we do about finding a story to help us explain what happens in our world. Columbine is by no means the first time that this has happened; people have been doing this for ages. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing on television that day, and what we most needed was an explanation. Reporters and journalists knew this to be true, because they have always known this to be true. So, accordingly, they jumped on a few facts–based on interviews with students that were in the building–and gave us what we wanted: the why to explain the what we were seeing.
Cullen’s re-writing of the narrative extends to places that are hard to accept. Specifically, he paints a clear picture of the falsity of the story about one victim who was famously shot because of her affirmative answer to a killer’s question about her belief in God. This story was one of the earliest to catch traction in the Columbine coverage, and it’s a story that still circulates in Christian contexts around the country. One girl was killed because she believed in God, and she became a contemporary example of real faith and belief. According to Cullen, and based on two different eye witness testimonies from inside the library, this faith affirmation never took place. What’s so great about this part of Cullen’s coverage is not that he dispels this myth, but that he perfectly depicts the difficulty for the survivors that knew the truth of the story and the heartache they went through trying to figure out whether or not it was their job to correct the coverage. Anyone writing about this thread of the Columbine story could easily fall into evaluative or even didactic language; Cullen intentionally doesn’t do this. He handles the moment with grace and a notable sense of balance and fairness.
I have no doubt that many reviews of the book criticize the extent to which Cullen pays attention to the killers. It’s true: a lot of the text is focused on Harris and Klebold, much more than the individual victims or survivors. Plenty of time is spent on these people, but the real stars of the text are the killers. This could be problematic in the same way that news coverage of school shootings is problematic for plastering pictures of the killer on screens and covers. I totally get this criticism, and I couldn’t help but wonder at times if I really wanted to know all of this about these two boys. But, overall, I feel as if this attention is warranted in Columbine, specifically because of the fact that all of this attention was necessary in order to re-write that bullied-and-misunderstood narrative that is most commonly accepted about the shooting. Cullen spends pages and pages talking about Harris and Klebold because he wants to show us that these boys did have friends, they had plenty of chances to “fit in” and “be understood,” and that this wasn’t a shooting to kill jocks. It was actually a failed bombing orchestrated by a psychopathic killer and his depressive sidekick. The “real” narrative is by no means more comforting than the other one, but at least it lets us know what to actually look at when trying to figure out “why” these kids did this.
Thinking about Cullen’s text, I cannot help but be reminded of Joan Didion’s essay, “The White Album.” In her opening paragraph, Didion tells us: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live . . We look for the sermon in the suicide. The moral lesson in the murder of five.” This, of course, is exactly what happened with Columbine, and it’s the same thing that’s happened with every mass shooting since. We want to know why. Actually, we must know why. We don’t even care if the answer is accurate or based on any actual knowledge–we just want the answer. Oh, the shooter was bullied. He was a psychopath. He was homophobic. He was abused as a kid. He was a white supremacist. Now that we know that, we can explain it all way. But, as Didion makes clear, this is simply us wanting coherence where it doesn’t actually exist, us forcing an explanation where we can’t find one. More times than not, we’re left with what we got by way of explanation with the Las Vegas shooter: absolutely nothing. We’re left with the “shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience,” as Didion says.
The saddest part about reading Columbine was knowing that, almost ten years after Cullen wrote the book–and almost twenty years after the shooting in Colorado–the only thing that has changed is that we have more mass shootings than ever, and that some of the new ones make Columbine look small-time. It’s as if these shootings are becoming a national pastime. The saddest part of these shootings are the victims and the sadness they create for real people. The most despicable part of these shootings is that we do absolutely nothing about them. We cross our fingers and hope they don’t happen close to home.
I can’t imagine what goes through Dave Cullen’s mind each time a new shooting appears in the news. Is he frustrated? Does he nod his head in fulfilled expectation? Perhaps he cries to himself, softly, heartbroken that his years and years of research and writing have changed no one’s understanding of the real problem? I don’t know how he reacts, but I know that the next time a school shooting inevitably happens, I will immediately think about Cullen’s amazing text, and I will wish that there was something that I could do.