I can see why this book is considered a classic in narrative nonfiction. In fact, I picked up this book because Nathaniel Philbrick, himself a master writer, told the New York Times that this was one of his favorite books of the genre. (The other nonfiction book he mentioned was Alfred Lansing’s Endurance, which I also agree was excellent.)
A Night to Remember gives a gripping, detailed account of what happened the night the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in the Atlantic Ocean, killing more than 1,500 people. Originally published in 1955, Walter Lord had interviewed survivors and reviewed documents to create this incredible narrative of the events surrounding April 15, 1912. I also liked the context Lord gave to the tragedy:
Overriding everything else, the Titanic also marked the end of a general feeling of confidence. Until then men felt they had found the answer to a steady, orderly, civilized life. For 100 years the Western world had been at peace.* For 100 years technology had steadily improved. For 100 years the benefits of peace and industry seemed to be filtering satisfactorily through society. In retrospect, there may seem less grounds for confidence, but at the time most articulate people felt life was all right.
The Titanic woke them up. Never again would they be quite so sure of themselves. In technology especially, the disaster was a terrible blow. Here was the “unsinkable ship” — perhaps man’s greatest engineering achievement — going down the first time it sailed.
But it went beyond that. If this supreme achievement was so terribly fragile, what about everything else? If wealth meant so little on this cold April night, did it mean so much the rest of the year? Scores of ministers preached that the Titanic was a heaven-sent lesson to awaken people from their complacency, to punish them for a top-heavy faith in material progress. If it was a lesson, it worked — people have never been sure of anything since.
*I think Mr. Lord has overlooked a few dozen wars in this eloquent-and-yet-untrue sentence, including the American Civil War, the Napoleonic wars, and innumerable conflicts involving the British Empire. Other than that, this passage is great.
I listened to this book on audio and was so engrossed I finished it in one session. Highly recommended.
“What troubled people especially was not just the tragedy — or even its needlessness — but the element of fate in it all. If the Titanic had heeded any of the six ice messages on Sunday … if ice conditions had been normal … if the night had been rough or moonlit … if she had seen the berg 15 seconds sooner — or 15 seconds later … if she had hit the ice any other way … if her watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher … if she had carried enough boats … if the Californian had only come … Had any one of those ‘ifs’ turned out right, every life might have been saved. But they all went against her — a classic Greek tragedy.”