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How to Survive the Titanic Paperback – October 11, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


“Wilson gives an absorbing account of the disaster and its cultural associations.. . her approach yields a rich meditation on the mere moment’s hesitation that separates cowardice from courage.” (Publishers Weekly)

“It is a pleasure to read a book…that offers something new on this topic. Titanic completists will certainly want this, and also…readers of biography and Edwardian-era history.” (Library Journal)

“The author demonstrates an impressive knowledge of that night to remember. ” (Kirkus)

“Wilson herself casts a Conradian spell…finds submerged truths, unravels riddles, listens to echoes. This book is a deep reading of the catastrophe through one hapless, inert man.” (Hermione Eyre, Evening Standard)

“A haunting story…A meticulously researched and eloquently written account of one of the twentieth century’s most iconic disasters [that] explores a man ‘mired in the moment of his jump.’” (Lucy Scholes, Daily Beast "Must Reads")

“A gripping retrospective on the Titanic disaster seen through the eyes of the wealthy ship’s owner…and an inspired interweaving of the moral themes of guilt and responsibility” (Richard Holmes, Wall Street Journal)

“A gripping account…Wilson brings a bright new perspective to the event raising provocative moral questions about cowardice and heroism, memory and identity, survival and guilt.” (Forbes)

“Persuasive…examines the disaster afresh through the prism of Ismay’s life…Ultimately, Wilson’s portrait-empathetic rather than sympathetic-depicts Ismay as an Everyman troublingly suited to our own uncertain times.” (BusinessWeek)

From the Back Cover

A brilliantly original and gripping new look at the sinking of the Titanic through the prism of the life and lost honor of J. Bruce Ismay, the ship’s owner

Books have been written and films have been made, we have raised the Titanic and watched her go down again on numerous occasions, but out of the wreckage Frances Wilson spins a new epic: when the ship hit the iceberg on April 14, 1912, and one thousand men, lighting their last cigarettes, prepared to die, J. Bruce Ismay, the ship’s owner and inheritor of the White Star fortune, jumped into a lifeboat filled with women and children and rowed away to safety.

Accused of cowardice and of dictating the Titanic’s excessive speed, Ismay became, according to one headline, “The Most Talked-of Man in the World.” The first victim of a press hate campaign, he never recovered from the damage to his reputation, and while the other survivors pieced together their accounts of the night, Ismay never spoke of his beloved ship again.

In the Titanic’s mail room was a manuscript by that great narrator of the sea, Joseph Conrad, the story of a man who impulsively betrays a code of honor and lives on under the strain of intolerable guilt. But it was Conrad’s great novel Lord Jim, in which a sailor abandons a sinking ship, leaving behind hundreds of passengers in his charge, that uncannily predicted Ismay’s fate. Conrad, the only major novelist to write about the Titanic, knew more than anyone what ships do to men, and it is with the help of his wisdom that Wilson unravels the reasons behind Ismay’s jump and the afterlives of his actions.

Using never-before-seen letters written by Ismay to the beautiful Marion Thayer, a first-class passenger with whom he had fallen in love during the voyage, Frances Wilson explores Ismay’s desperate need to tell his story, to make sense of the horror of it all, and to find a way of living with the consciousness of lost honor. For those who survived the Titanic, the world was never the same. But as Wilson superbly demonstrates, we all have our own Titanics, and we all need to find ways of surviving them.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (October 11, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062094548
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062094544
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,468,063 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By wogan TOP 500 REVIEWER on August 30, 2011
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book started out with such a good premise... Cowards die a thousand deaths, the valiant taste of death but once. It tells the story of J. Bruce Ismay, an owner of the Titanic; who got into one of the lifeboats and never looked back. It does present many of the conflicting accounts of the survivors and the horrible statistics: 2,340 passengers with a lifeboat capacity of 1,100. Only 705 were saved, of which 325 were men. The background of the ship, the reasoning for the lack of lifeboats and of the Ismay family is well covered. For those who are interested in the Titanic, there is much information here that is not normally covered - the accidents and near misses in Captain Smith's history are described. The arrogance of both the builder and captain are well presented..."these vessels could be cut in halves...and each half would remain afloat indefinitely."

Where the book becomes frustrating for those who wish to read about the Titanic is in the constant references to Joseph Conrad's `Lord Jim'. `Lord Jim' is referred to with increasing frequency as you progress through the pages until at one point you can read for almost 20 pages and not have word said about what the title of the book says the subject material is to survive the sinking of the Titanic. It's like being back in an English literature class where one examines every nuance and comparison between two assigned subject materials. Forster and Gainesworthy are also included in this literary examination to some extent. It would have been better to present the book as it is - a comparison to Lord Jim and Conrad's writings with historical details on the life of Ismay.

The analization of Ismay's life after the Titanic's sinking is done well.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Cordelia VINE VOICE on October 24, 2011
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
A great premise for a book, but it's hard to decide exactly who the audience is: readers like myself who are familiar with the Titanic literature, or those new to the topic intrigued by that piece of history. Those who are unaware of Ismay's less-than-heroic escape in the lifeboat may find this book lacking in a comprehensive picture of the main events that would fill out their knowledge of that terrible night in 1912 when the "unsinkable" luxury ship sank in icy waters. For those readers, Ismay would be an odd choice of character to focus on, because he is only interesting because of this fateful choice. However, as someone who knows the story, after the first couple of chapters I found myself thinking:I get it. Ismay's personality, his explanation of the life-changing and life-destroying decision he made that night, others' reports of his actions, his infatuation with a fellow passenger, his relationship with his wife, the public's view of Ismay, and the oft-emphasized connection with Conrad's Lord Jim, it was all spelled out. Yes, many details followed, but I felt a lot had been given away too early on. Too narrow a subject for the uninitiated; too much given away too soon for the initiated seeking to focus the lens more closely on one of Titanic lore's notorious figures.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Only-A-Child VINE VOICE on August 29, 2011
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Imagine that in the rush for your eight-hour flight to Europe you forgot the book you intended to read during the flight. You duck into the airport bookstore and grab a copy of Frances Wilson's "How to Survive the Titanic" and count yourself lucky to have found something on this always entertaining subject. You settle into your aisle seat and note the actuary sitting in the seat next to you. Upon takeoff he buries himself in his laptop, occasionally referring to a binder of actuarial tables.

With no possibility of entertaining conversation or sleep you are especially thankful that you have your new Titanic book. An hour later the book is stowed in the seat pocket in front of you and you have borrowed the binder of actuarial charts. For the remaining seven hours of the flight you immerse yourself in the study of risk management, unexpectedly finding the subject of great interest in a world where everything is relative, even degrees of boredom.

Wilson's area of interest is English literature and her pitch to the Harper Collins Publishing House must have been to the effect that she could bring something new to the Titanic universe by drawing parallels between the Titanic's story (and especially White Star Lines' owner J. Bruce Ismay) and Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim". So if you thought Francis Ford Coppola's "Heart of Darkness" inspired "Apocalypse Now" was a bad idea you would be wise to give Wilson's book a wide berth (pun intended).

If you are masochistic and/or take perverse pleasure from the folly of book publishers you might find "How to Survive the Titanic" of some amusement value.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By jrv25 on October 31, 2011
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Such a great premise, but such a disappointment. This book gets far too mired down in the legal proceedings surrounding the sinking. Furthurmore, the author makes long and painful attempts to relate Mr. Ismay to characters in Conrad's writings. The amount of time devoted to this comparision is just too painful to endure. The book comes across as a longwinded term paper from an overeager English Literature major. The critical and interesting parts of this book would include more of Ismay's interactions with people in the years/decades after the sinking, yet there is sparse attention given to this area.
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