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What to Read Next (No. 284): R.M.S. Titanic
Happy Friday, readers!
Last week’s news about OceanGate’s Titan submersible had me digging through my mental archives for the Titanic books that have stayed with me. For a good chunk of my childhood, I was obsessed with the ship and read everything I could get my hands on, regardless of genre or intended audience. (I don’t entirely remember, but I think my interest pre-dated James Cameron’s famed film, which came out when I was almost 10.)
Given all the cultural significance and recognition of the Titanic and its sinking, there’s a surprising dearth of mainstream books about it. There are a few historical novels, a few accounts focused on the passengers, and a cultural history or two. But there isn’t really a big, narrative history that covers the true story from start to finish.
Until that day comes, we’ll make do with the books featured in today’s newsletter.
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
As the cover itself states, this book is known as “the classic account of the final hours of the Titanic” for good reason. First published in 1955, Walter Lord wrote this brisk account of the ship’s sinking using the best available information. Beyond just giving us facts, though, Lord leaned into storytelling and historical retrospective:
“What troubled people especially was not just the tragedy—or even its needlessness—but the element of fate in it all. If the Titanic had heeded any of the six ice messages on Sunday … if ice conditions had been normal … if the night had been rough or moonlit … if she had seen the berg 15 seconds sooner—or 15 seconds later … if she had hit the ice any other way … if her watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher … if she had carried enough boats … if the Californian had only come. Had any one of these ‘ifs’ turned out right, every life might have been saved. But they all went against her—a classic Greek tragedy.”
Though I read the book probably 20 years ago, Walter Lord’s vivid prose has stayed with me. In fact, when I first started writing this review I misremembered the book as fiction — a testament to the narrative focus that Lord gave the text.
If you’re going to read just one book about the Titanic, this is the one to start with. It captures, in equal measure, the sheer majesty and tragedy of the great ship. At only ~200 pages, A Night to Remember is never dull and can easily be read in a weekend. As it has done for generations of readers, it might just be the book that hooks you into a maritime obsession.
The Titanic Disaster Hearings edited by Tom Kuntz
Within days of the Titanic’s sinking, the US Senate embarked on a full-scale investigation of why the unsinkable ship went under. This long, but always readable book is made up of transcripts from that investigation, with testimony from shipbuilders, Titanic crewmates and officers, passengers, and rescuers.
The Titanic Disaster Hearings reads like an oral history and is far more of a page-turner than you’d expect. The story has a little bit of everything — the corporate hubris and greed, the crew’s bravery, and the passengers’ fear and traumas. Lessons in leadership and resilience, both on the positive and negative side, abound.
You likely haven’t heard of this book, but it’s well worth your attention. If you’re at all interested in the subject of the Titanic, The Titanic Disaster Hearings is a must-read.
The newest title on this list (by far), Daniel Stone’s unique 2022 examination of Titanic starts where most of these other books end: the great ship’s long descent to the seafloor. From that moment, the Titanic became more than just another early 20th-century tragedy.
Stone covers a little bit of everything: the science of shipwrecks (and why reconstructing them so precisely is critically important), why it took so long to discover the Titanic’s final resting place, its enduring appeal as a maritime gravesite, and ultimately why the ship continues to captivate the world well over a hundred years later.
Much of the book profiles the folks who have most obsessively tried to salvage the wreck and the numerous ideas and attempts to raise the Titanic — attempts which were mostly put to a stop once its location and condition were finally discovered in 1985. Turns out that the plot of Clive Cussler’s Raise the Titanic (another great book!) wasn’t so outlandish after all.
Of particular note, Stone mentions OceanGate, owners of the Titan submersible. He wrote this about the adventure tourism company:
“Tourism is good for the Titanic brand, but it’s also its undoing. . . . Fame brings exploitation and prioritizes volume.”
I finished Sinkable just a few days ago and I can guarantee I’ll be thinking about it in the weeks and months to come.
I remember obsessing over this book as a kid. Ken Marschall’s vivid, realistic paintings of the Titanic made the ship feel so alive that I couldn’t look away. It’s a coffee table book that kids and adults alike will enjoy.
There’s a little bit of text about the ship and its doomed maiden voyage, but I don’t remember a single bit of that. The artwork definitely steals the show. Because of that, there’s not a lot for me to say about the book other than sharing a few examples of the art and telling you to pick up a copy online or through your library. You won’t regret it.
Marschall’s Titanic: An Illustrated History and Inside the Titanic: A Giant Cutaway Book (specifically for kids) are also fantastic. I just requested that last one from the library so that I could revisit Marschall’s work with my kids.
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