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Cannonball Read #8: A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

Yes, another Cannonball Read entry. It's been sort of exhilarating to do so much reading--I'd really gotten out of the habit the past few years, and now that I have a goal and a motivational push (my goal right now is to try and keep pace with Mr. Controversy and Figgy, who seem to moving at about the same speed I am) I have been getting an awful lot of reading done. It also helps that I've discovered Half.com where I can order books for basically the cost of shipping (yes, I know about libraries, but our local book-den is kind of pathetic, and besides, I like to KEEP my books.)

Walter Lord's A Night to Remember is another addition to my strangely expanding "nautical disasters" book list. It's another book about the Titanic, this one written in 1955. Lord had the opportunity to interview more than 60 of the wreck's survivors, and he compiled a detailed narrative account of the disaster from the perspective of those who were there, beginning with the lookout who first saw the ice burg all the way to the passengers on the steamer Carpathia who were jolted awake in the middle of the night by the frantic dash to try and rescue survivors.

This book is far less technical than Ghosts of the Titanic, because it is based solely on survivor accounts rather than on an scientific exploration of the wreckage (the wreckage would not be discovered until the mid 1980s, long after this book was not only completed but already made into a TV movie--at Lord's time, it was still believed the ship had sunk as one whole piece, which we now know to be incorrect). There is much more detail here about what life was like on the ship--who the passengers were, where they were coming from, and how they spent their time. There are also details about the ship itself, about how the rooms looked, how the dining rooms functioned, about the staff and the crew and what their positions entailed. There are accounts from the crew of the Carpathia, testifying to heroic actions taken by themselves and their captain which helped save many lives. This story is much more human than clinical; Lord didn't have the luxury of science yet, he had only the survivors and the benefit of their 40 years of reflection, as well as news reports and the transcripts from various trials.

Lord also has a chapter which touches on the impact of Titanic on society at large--the only chapter that really takes us out of the narrative and allows Lord to voice some of his own personal opinions. In his mind, Titanic shook the confidence of the western world. That something seen as a beacon of modern strength and ingenuity--something thought to be well nigh invincible--could fail so spectacularly was a shock. If even the massive Titanic was fallible, what COULD be counted on? Lord also muses on the effect the tragedy had on class separation in the US--the fact that 75% of 1st class passengers and perhaps only 15% of 3rd class passengers survived says a lot about how things were done on the Titanic, and by extension in the world at large. Lord draws no solid conclusions, but asks a lot of questions for the reader to think about.

This is a well-known book about the Titanic, and a reference point for many scholars who have gone on to write about the disaster, since Lord had the most original sources. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the Titanic, or who wants a tight, gripping read.

Comments

Mr. Controversy said…
I remembered being assigned to read this one in Middle School, when it was the hot research topic for all the kids. (Our Social Studies teacher took it off the research paper topic list because of that.) I might have to go back and read that now.

As for reading itself, I find myself agreeing with you that it's refreshing and quite the mental workout. My girlfriend reads at a MUCH faster pace than myself, so it's fun to finally try and catch up to her. Best of luck in your literary endeavors, my friend.

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