Wednesday, May 2, 2012


I've been curious to read this for years, having loved the 1958 black & white film version of this riveting account of the last hours of the Titanic when I was a small child (still widely praised as the best cinema treatment of the story; I watched it again just recently, and much prefer its no-frills docudrama approach to James Cameron's histrionic melodrama; with a story this powerful, you really don't want improbable fictions ladled all over it), and having become a bit of an obsessive about the disaster as a result. However, I'd somehow never got around to it... until I was lucky enough to win a copy a couple of weeks ago in a Titanic-themed trivia quiz to mark the centenary of the tragic sinking - in the early hours of the morning on April 15th, 1912.

Walter Lord's book, first published in 1956, immediately won warm reviews for its economical storytelling, although I didn't find his authorial presence as 'invisible' as some of those contemporary critics did: there is wry wit, and occasional judgment here and there, but it's not obtrusive. Overall, Lord's style is refreshingly spare, and he strives always for understanding and forgiveness rather than condemnation of the more questionable conduct which may have contributed to the disaster or which followed from it. On occasions, though, Lord's studied silence can be more damning than overt comment: Captain Stanley Lord, commanding the nearby S.S. Californian, who exhibited an incomprehensible indifference to reports of a ship in possible distress a few miles to the south, does not emerge well from Lord's account - although the only explicit comment on his actions is veiled in a bitter sarcasm.

Subsequently, this book has been honoured as inaugurating the genre of 'oral history', soon to be applied on  a much broader scale to accounts of World War II by Cornelius Ryan, and later by Studs Terkel and others. It's a pity, though, that Lord didn't embark on his great work until some 40 years after the disaster: he only managed to speak to 63 survivors, many of whom were already fairly elderly; Charles Lightoller, the quietly heroic 2nd Officer who would soon be immortalised on film by Kenneth More, had recently passed away at the age of 78. Perhaps half of the book is derived from various memoirs, news reports, and transcripts of the various inquiries into the disaster.

For the Titanic nerd like myself, the major complaint would be that the book isn't detailed enough: it doesn't attempt to analyse the causes of the disaster, or speculate on what alternative actions might have been taken to avert or ameliorate it. But this was not the task that Lord set himself: he just wanted to make the disaster accessible to people, to provide a brisk and vivid portrait of the sinking of the ship from the perspective of those who actually witnessed it. In achieving that limited aim, the book is an exemplary success. Indeed, the one regret for most readers will probably be that it is over so soon. This surprisingly short book - barely 170 pages - can be read in less than three hours. If you read it in one sitting, it provides an eerily 'real-time' experience of the loss of the magnificent ship and more than 1,500 lives aboard her.

Do check out the film version of A Night To Remember as well - like the book that inspired it, an enduring classic.


stacy said...

I thought James Cameron turned me off learning about the Titanic forever, but I just might check this out. Thanks for the great review.

Froog said...

Thanks, Stacy.

I did a post on my blog the other day about some of the questions about the Titanic disaster that have most been nagging me as a result of the omissions in Lord's book.

Froog said...

I have felt a mounting dissatisfaction with many aspects of the book in the couple of weeks since I finished it. The problem is that, in order to achieve a straightforward, easily readable account, Lord has synthesised many different sources; but he doesn't tell you what any of these are. And the fact is that the Titanic's story is a very messy one: many of the survivors' accounts were vague, muddled, or flat-out contradictory of each other.

So, the book entertains as a good read, but as history it is found wanting.

Froog said...

By the by, Stacy, you seem to be on your own here these days! What happened to everybody else? Was there a Zombie Apocalypse I didn't hear about?

I wonder if it hasn't been a Kindle Apocalypse. I fear that e-readers just don't present such a 'substantial' reading experience, and so it becomes easy to detach oneself from various habits and rituals that you may have evolved around your reading of physical books.

We should look into that. I'd risk a small bet that that's what it is. Most of the former BookBook reviewers are still reading as much as ever, but they're doing it on Kindle and the like, and so somehow they forget to write the book up afterwards.

stacy said...

I don't know where everyone went! People seem to still be reading the blog because people comment, but I don't know why more people don't review. I plan to keep at it as often as I can as long as the blog is up.

stacy said...

I've heard there's quite a bit of blog fatigue going on lately. I know I don't update to my own blog nearly as much as I should.

Froog said...

Ah, that'll be the other scourge of the last three years then - Twitter!

People spend much time on that now that blogging is getting sidelined. I know it's a huge vice in the States, and amongst my American friends in Beijing. My impression (can't really say, I'm so out of touch with "the kids"!) is that Brits and other Europeans are not nearly so much in its thrall.

Keep up the good fight, Stacy!

I will try to chip in occasionally myself. (I realise I've hit a bad run over the last year or so where I've been so distracted with other stuff that I haven't managed to finish a book. I only get a lot of reading done on holidays, and... I haven't had a holiday in 15 months.)