It was sad when that great ship went down — though not for the publishing industry, then or now. Here is a selection from the dozens of books intended to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the vessel thought to be unsinkable — until it hit an iceberg on April 14, 1912.
The disaster was not total. In
Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived
(Atria, $25), Andrew Wilson chronicles the before-and-after lives of such well-heeled souls as Lady Duff Gordon and Madeleine Astor. The most enterprising survivor, however, may have been Dorothy Gibson, a movie actress who starred in a film version of the sinking that debuted a mere four months after the event. Exploitation, it seems, harks back to the infancy of movies.
The most notorious survivor is the subject of How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay , by Frances Wilson (Harper; paperback, $15.99). Ismay was the ship’s owner, on board to take pride in the maiden voyage. He lived because, flouting the women-and-children-first etiquette of the day, he jumped into a lifeboat and rowed away without, it is said, even looking back. He was widely criticized for this at the time, and Wilson examines his act in light of the similar behavior by the hero of Joseph Conrad’s great novel “Lord Jim.”
In another example of exploiting catastrophe, not long after the sinking, an unspecified publisher brought out a memorial volume, edited by one Marshall Everett: Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic: The Ocean’s Greatest Disaster . Now HarperDesign has published a facsimile selling at $24.99. The antique typeface is complemented by gilt edging on the pages, endpapers with a swirly amoebic pattern and a grainy cover. One learns in these pages that Ismay was not only a coward, he was also maladroit — in making for that lifeboat, he got in crewmen’s way.
Deborah Hopkinson has drawn on eyewitness statements, along with period drawings and photographs, to write Titanic: Voices From the Disaster , which is pitched to readers ages 8 to 12 (Scholastic, $17.99). Here one survivor recalls the heart-stopping process of being lowered to the sea in a lifeboat: “This was done amid the greatest confusion. Rough seamen all giving different orders. No officer aboard. As only one side of the ropes worked, the lifeboat at one time was in such a position that it seemed we must capsize in mid-air. At last the ropes worked together, and we drew nearer and nearer the black, oily water.”
Everyman for Himself sounds like the rule Ismay lived by on that fateful day, but it’s also the title of a novel about the Titanic by the late Beryl Bainbridge, which has been reissued for the anniversary (Europa; paperback, $16). The book ends with the morning after, as the sun rises on a sea “dotted with islands and fields of ice. Some floated with tapering mast-heads, some sailed with monstrous bows rising sheer to the pink-flushed sky, some glided the water in the shapes of ancient vessels. Between this pale fleet the little life-boats rocked.”
Life magazine had yet to be born when the Titanic sank, but its familiar combination of well-chosen photographs and serviceable text has been applied to the disaster retroactively in Titanic: The Tragedy That Shook the World: One Century Later (Life Books, $29.95). The endpapers reproduce the floor plan of first-class accommodations; the frontispiece shows the entry for the Titanic in a shipping register of April 10, 1912, the day it steamed away from Southhampton, England, on its first and only voyage; and the last page of text depicts the cover of Morgan Robertson’s prescient 1898 novella “Futility,” in which a supposedly unsinkable ship goes down, costing many passengers their lives because, like the Titanic 14 years in the future, it fails to carry enough lifeboats.