To sift through a pile of Titanic lit is to invite a feeling of unease deep into one’s gut. It’s not just the hubris, the panic, the hundreds plunging to their doom. It’s the wake of Edwardian drawing-room trivia: fervid, lip-smacking stuff. Conspiracy theorists, a cookbook, even a cultural history of the boundlessly loony ‘tanic fanatics — all are surfing the PR tidal wave from James Cameron’s mondo movie.
But the blessed cinematic event has set the authorial bar and set it high. Crockery be damned — we want to see the disaster unfold! We want to be there! And though we can certainly go the pricey coffee-table-book route (half a dozen left me bleary-eyed), the best vehicle for time travel remains Walter Lord’s 1955 classic A Night to Remember (Bantam), a 209-page paperback.
Lord’s physics may now be suspect (the 1958 film version had the liner going down intact), but his account — which draws on interviews with 63 survivors — is as seamless and skillful as you’re going to get, from the analysis of 1912’s upper-class-biased press coverage to the Vietnam memorial-esque passenger list that concludes the book. You’re right alongside as one jokey soul in second class requests ice from the berg to chill his highball…as posh Lady Duff Gordon ”vomit[s] away the night” in Lifeboat No. 1…as 5-year-old Washington Dodge Jr. demands cocoa upon being unceremoniously ”plopped” on the Carpathia’s deck. If God is indeed in the details, it’s clear why this is many a researcher’s Titanic bible.
Still, it won’t satisfy technophiles, anthropologists, or anyone who believes the boat is a mine of exciting secrets to be plundered and computer-mapped within an inch of her ill-fated prow. For these activities, trawl Titanic: Legacy of the World’s Greatest Ocean Liner (Time-Life), companion to a recent Discovery Channel documentary. Float right over the gassy, pointless introduction from William F. Buckley Jr. (who let him into the sub?). Wade through some sanctimonious prose and a cold slew of digital drawings. And lo, behold lots of eerily unmarred goodies salvaged from the wreck: bobby pins, a jar of olives, a gold wristwatch, a chamber pot — everything but the kitchen sink. (Whoops! There’s one of those too.)
Before you’re lulled by this sumptuous inventory of things, however, heed the sobering swell of Titanic Voices: Memories From the Fateful Voyage (St. Martin’s). Produced by the city council of Southampton, this amateurish yet exhaustive book focuses on the decimated British hamlet where the ship was constructed, launched, and largely staffed. Unedited letters home — many from the servants, who suffered the highest casualty rate — are all the more heartrending for their blithe, unknowing mundanity. ”Having pretty easy time. Five ladies and eight kids,” writes saloon steward E.A. Stroud. ”…[What] with no dusters or anything to work with I wish the bally ship at the bottom of the sea,” fusses steward George Beedem. Both perished.
Having seen therein snaps of actual lifeboats shot from the Carpathia, you can understand the difficulty of switching mental lanes to…Kate Winslet done up in candy colors. James Cameron’s Titanic (HarperPerennial) tie-in stands prouder than most such efforts. How could it not, with everyone from the Defense Department to Digital Domain participating in the simulacrum orgy? Most engrossing is the breakdown of how they got all those bodies to bounce off the deck furniture. And let us not forget, as one costume designer reminds us, that ”menswear of the time was accessory hell.” But this is really just a rousing round-robin of cast-and-crew backslapping. Deserved, certainly. But when reading about the Titanic, most of us would rather feel lingeringly sick to our stomachs. A Night to Remember: A Legacy of the World’s Greatest Ocean Liner: B Titanic Voices: B+ James Cameron’s Titanic: C+