Saturday, April 14, 2012


I've been reading a lot about sunken ships recently. When I was young, one of my favorite books was Robert Ballard's Exploring the Bismarck, about the Titanic wreck discoverer's further adventures finding a sunken WWII battleship. It's a fascination I've never been able to escape. There's something magnetic about otherworldly photographs of ships that disappeared so suddenly, so completely, that they now rest on the seafloor looking largely as they did when the were afloat. The brig-sloop Ontario, for instance, sank in a storm on the lake of the same name in 1780, and recent video footage shows how hauntingly intact she remains.

Of course, the most famous shipwreck, that of RMS Titanic, was taking place exactly a century ago as I write this. It's an event that has captivated people around the globe ever since. A few days ago, I read Walter Lord's classic A Night to Remember in one sitting. Recent media coverage has included interesting discussions of everything from clothing to human remains, and provided a welcome distraction for those of us who tire of political primaries and court drama.

Titanic embodied everything that was bright and dark about the world before the Wars. The ship left England in an era of opulence and oppression, colonialism and conquest, revolution and reinvention, as Western society was transitioning from Victorian to Modern. 1,500 of Titanic's passengers never lived to see the new world. As the wreck fades into dust, they will be memorialized not by the majestic and monstrous hull, but by the small things. The china from which they ate. Souvenirs and playthings. The boots that they wore. And the coal that propelled them on an optimistic journey aboard one of the most magnificent creations of their time.

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