As this weekend marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, I decided to read A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. I had never read the classic, which was first published in 1955, has never been out of print, and is still considered the definitive text on that disastrous event. I can’t believe I hadn’t picked this book up before—what a gripping read. Lord did exhaustive research, interviewing survivors and studying all the newspaper accounts. Though it’s not just the facts, but Lord’s pacing and the way he metes out the many small moments that make this book so memorable. Lord writes with a crisp, descriptive hand. “The Atlantic was like a polished plate glass; people later said they had never seen it so smooth.” Even 60 years later, the book holds up and does not feel dated.
We’ve all heard much of the Titanic lore. For example, there’s the much-repeated story of the cook who got drunk and thus survived in the freezing water. He has a cameo in the James Cameron film, clinging to the rail of the stern next to the mawkish Jack and Rose (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet). In fact, reports Lord, Chief Baker Charles Joughin treaded water in the 28-degree ocean for four long hours—no wetsuit! That’s a Navy-Seal caliber achievement. I love the scene in which Joughin calmly enjoyed a whiskey in his cabin as the water lapped up over his shoes.
The book holds so many small precious stories, true ones. Two young men, new friends that night, shook hands and jumped off the rails together—one lived, one drowned. Men worked furiously in boiler room 5 pumping water and keeping the coal burning for ship’s lights (and the wireless). John J Astor IV disguised a ten-year-old boy in a floppy girl’s hat so the lad could get into a lifeboat. I did not know boys that young were considered ‘men’ and thus not included in ‘women and children first.’ Instead, they were told to buck up as they watched their mothers and sisters drop down in the boats. Oh, and those officers on the nearby SS Californian who watched the whole thing, flares and all? Darwin Award.
Instead, the RMS Carpathia raced north. I hadn’t realized this was such a full-court press, with them turning off the lights, heat, and hot water to send all power to the engines. Even after Titanic sinks, Lord takes us through the tensions and the struggle to survive in the lifeboats, several of which were swamped with water and listing themselves.
A Night to Remember was so riveting that I did not pause to turn on “Downton Shipwreck,” Julian Fellowes’s four-hour TV saga. Full disclosure: I did dvr it. Still, I get a little frustrated with these fictionalizations as I’m more curious about the actual events. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” said Mark Twain (and/or Lord Byron). And, it’s certainly more gripping than melodrama.
After all, what could beat the story of the sinking of the “unsinkable” ship? Industry was vanquished, and its magnates, such as Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, were also proven vulnerable. The ship’s demise marked the end of an era. Some say the Edwardian Era, others the Belle Époque. “To anybody who lived at the time, the Titanic more than any other single event mark[ed] the end of the old days, and the beginning of a new, uneasy era,” wrote Lord. The ship has since become a cultural phenomenon, spurring myth, discussions, and fascination for a century now.
Lord wrote a sequel The Night Lives On, highlighted with several other picks listed as “Best Titanic Books” on Goodreads. There are also several recent releases to mark the centennial reviewed by The Washington Post. And, The New York Times Book Review just spotlighted two new books that deal with the aftermath of the survivors. Several of whom committed suicide in the years after.
But my favorite take on all this Titanic hype is Book Riot’s “What Books Were People Reading on the Titanic?” Talk about a meta must-read.