Following my goal of reading more nonfiction this year, I finally decided to pick up A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. It’s a minute-by-minute account of the night the Titanic ship sank, and the aftermath of that. It starts off from the first ice warnings and goes on until the day the survivors arrive in New York several days later. It’s a pretty great overview of this historical event – what happened, why it happened, who did what, and it also at least partly answers the reason why the Titanic has stayed in minds and hearts for such a long time, why it’s such a memorable – almost iconic – night in history.
The book is based on the recollections and memories from many people’s accounts, from survivors but also from family members of the people traveling on Titanic that night, of other significant people in the aftermath as well. Because it is based on peoples’ memories to a great extent, it’s not perfect in the reliability – memories are not exact and humans rarely are objective. But it’s not really possible to know exactly what happened, this is at least a fairly reliable and extensive picture of the entirety of the ‘event’. As I said, for an overview it’s pretty good I thought. I haven’t read anything else on the Titanic but I found it to be informative and interesting, touching upon all things of interest really. Perhaps it would’ve been interesting to see how a non-American/British author would tackle it – the third class passengers especially constituted non-English speaking people to a great extent. Their side is largely skipped over, although Lord does comment on this absensce of knowledge and of interest for third class passengers – he doesn’t do much to really delve into their experience of the event but of course it’s difficult for several reasons. Partly that a great deal of them didn’t survive, there’s the language barriers, etc.
One of the most interesting things I learned reading this book was that it wasn’t just one person’s mistake that created this disaster. So many things were going wrong from different directions at the same time. Lord says that he thinks the reason the event has gotten so much attention is the fate of it all – how many things that could’ve gone right, but went wrong, like a greek tragedy. There’s the fact that the ice warnings were ignored, that the other ships ignored the cries for help, the slowness in getting down the boats or even not filling up the boats to its full capacities, and more. Small decisions that together shaped the night’s events, some decisions for the better, some for the worse. One of the things that really stuck with me was that the boats, some of them only half-full, refused to go back after the ship had sunk, to the cries of help, in fear that they would be overturned because of panicked people. They chose not to turn back and instead had to listened to the cries of people in the freezing water, until slowly the cries died out replaced by calm and silence.
As I said, Lord talks about third class passengers more generally and points out some pretty important facts. Like this:
The night was a magnificent confirmation of “women and children first”, yet somehow the loss rate was higher for Third Class children than First Class men. It was a contrast which would never get by the social consciousness (or news sense) of today’s press.
For me, although it’s not hard to believe considering the historical context – which I am familiar enough to know it wouldn’t be impossible, it was still surprising and definitely an aspect worth noting. What I realised and learned from this book was really that this event was so incredibly weaved into the context of its time. What happened, who survived, how things were dealt with, everything would’ve been different in a different era, in a different culture – different time, different space. The class issue but also the “women first”, the way the Titanic was built and designed, fitted, the eye for detail on the look of every inch of its inside and outside – the grandeur and all. I’m not saying that a tragedy like a ship sinking couldn’t happen now – it certainly could, and does. Or that there will never be a magnificent ship like the Titanic (granted, I know little of ships to say how much of this is true or not). But the fact that the sinking of Titanic happened in such a specific time in world history makes it I think interesting. It happened right before a big change in the world, and I think it’s also why the fancy clothes and dresses and music and lifestyle of the first class really seems so iconic. The then and the now, the contrast even for the people on the ship – before Titanic, after. Another example of how specific a time in world history it was, is I think the great deal of Scandinavian people on board. There’s a passenger list at the end of the book and a great deal of the names sound if not Swedish at least Scandinavian, I recognise some as Finnish as well. It was a time when a lot of people were emigrating to America, chasing the American Dream.
I’ve gone on long enough. It was interesting for an overview, it sparked some thoughts in me – and Lord does point out some interesting parts of the event as well as fill up some of the gaps with his own theories and thoughts.