Walter Lord,
A Night to Remember
(Holt, 1955; 2004)

A recent visit to a Titanic display -- a collection of 150 items recovered from the famous wreck, along with reproductions of 1st- and 3rd-class cabins, an ice wall simulating the feel of sub-freezing ocean water when the ship went down and other interperative displays -- sparked my interest once again in this heart-breaking moment in history.

Watching James Cameron's Titanic -- which, sappy love story aside, does a phenomenal job presenting events surrounding the collision and eventual sinking -- didn't sate my craving, nor did an IMAX presentation of Titanica, which seemed at times more interested in the faces the Russian exploration crew could make than it did in the wreck itself. So I picked up a well-worn copy of A Night to Remember, Walter Lord's definitive narrative of the event.

More than 50 years after its initial publication, A Night to Remember is still the book to read to get a true feel of the occasion.

Lord, who collected contemporary reports from 1912 and personally interviewed many of the survivors, has written an exhaustive summary of events that makes you almost feel like you're watching events unfold from some hidden vantage point. This slim volume is a quick read -- moreso because, once you've started, it's nearly impossible to put down -- but the amount of detail is densely packed into the pages. Lord provides a thorough introduction to many of the characters who populated the ship, the attitudes and social mores of the day, and the impact Titanic's sinking had on the world in the aftermath. Also of interest are accounts of the lazy response of the nearby ship Californian, the almost heroic attempt of the Carpathia to beat the clock and the media frenzy that followed.

A lot has changed since this book was first published, not the least of which was the discovery of the Titanic's remains -- in two pieces, not one as was originally believed -- at the bottom of the North Atlantic. Completists will want to read Lord's follow-up book, The Night Lives On, which was written after the ship's discovery by Robert Ballard in 1985. Even so, A Night to Remember is an outstanding testament to the memory of Titanic, her passengers and crew and belongs on the reading list of anyone who enjoys history or maritime lore.

The Titanic sank before my parents' parents were born, and yet -- thanks to Walter Lord -- I feel like an eyewitness to the great tragedy.

review by
Tom Knapp

17 April 2010

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