Book Reviews
11:03 am
Fri April 6, 2012

100 Years Later, Titanic Lives On In Letters

Originally published on Fri April 6, 2012 3:23 pm

When I hear the word "Titanic," I picture a tuxedoed Leonardo DiCaprio, waiting at the bottom of a gilded staircase while the voice of Celine Dion swells in my mind. It's all Edwardian glitz and glamour, decadence and passionate love, the kind best enjoyed in a dark theater with plenty of popcorn. And then I quickly remember that the ship sinks, and that Titanic is more than just an epic film from my youth. On April 15, a century will have passed since the ship plummeted into the icy Atlantic, and it is the tragedy we should remember, not just the mythology surrounding it. A movie can help us picture the events — I know I will be catching the new 3-D version of the film as it returns to theaters for the anniversary — but it can't fully capture the heartbreaking stories and fascinating discoveries tied to the Titanic. For a more complete understanding, we must turn to books.

Fortunately, there are hundreds out there. And with the centennial comes a boatload of new titles, from glossy coffee table commemorations to memoirs by the scientists who have poked around inside the wreckage. Titanic experts, Gilded Age historians and nautical novelists have picked this moment to deliver their thoughts on the sinking. Here are a few of my favorites.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is almost here, so get ready for all the Titanic-themed diversions. The record-breaking 1997 film hits theaters today, reworked in 3-D. There's also a four-part TV miniseries from the creator of "Downton Abbey." And then there are the books, lots of books.

So many, we asked freelance journalist Rachel Syme to help us comb through them.

RACHEL SYME: When I hear "Titanic," there's Leonardo DiCaprio in a tuxedo, waiting by a gilded staircase. Celine Dion swells in my mind, and then I quickly remember that the ship sinks. "Titanic" is more than just an epic film from my youth. On April 15th, it will be a century since the ship plummeted into the icy Atlantic. A movie can't really capture the scope of the disaster. For that, let's turn to books.

There have been hundreds published and dozens more have come out just in the last few months. Here are a few of my favorites. First up is "Titanic: First Accounts." Expert Tim Maltin collected stories from survivors. Among the voices are millionaire Margaret Brown. She became the Unsinkable Molly Brown when a musical was written about her life. There's also writer Lawrence Beesley. He says that when the ship finally vanished, the passengers on the lifeboats felt a great sense of loneliness. It's haunting to hear from them.

But we also need to understand the big picture. For that, I turned to Steven Biel's book "Down with the Old Canoe." It's a cultural history, and it's just been reissued. He describes the Gilded Age and its overreaching industrial dreams. He also explores the disaster's aftermath: the press frenzy and the ship's legacy. Before the Titanic even set out, its maiden voyage was hyped in the press. It's one of the reasons her owners wanted to make a surprise early landing in New York.

One of those owners was J. Bruce Ismay. His dramatic story comes to life in Frances Wilson's biography "How to Survive the Titanic," just out in paperback. As the legend goes, Ismay asked the captain to speed up, which may have made it impossible to avoid the iceberg. Ismay escaped the sinking ship at the last minute, and when he returned home, he was known as a coward. But he wasn't the only one who got away.

In her e-book "Lifeboat No. 8," Elizabeth Kaye follows the passengers who ended up together on that tiny vessel. There was the wealthy Countess of Rothes and her maid, Roberta Maioni, who fell in love with Jack, Titanic's radio operator. Kaye suggests that this love story may have inspired the blockbuster movie.

Lastly, if these true stories are overwhelming, you can turn to a new novel called "The Dressmaker." Kate Alcott follows Tess, a young seamstress. She comes aboard the Titanic as an apprentice to a famous fashion designer. Both women survive. But it's what happens back on dry land that gets interesting. Alcott explores the complicated gender dynamics of the time, and Tess is a heroine you can really root for.

These books cover a range of emotions. It's important to take in both the sorrowful and triumphant stories about the Titanic because there are still thousands waiting to emerge from the deep in the next 100 years.

CORNISH: Rachel Syme is a former NPR editor. You can comment on this essay at our website. Go to nprbooks.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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