Reviewed by Jennifer Ouellette
Last fall, ABC launched a lazy, cynical reboot of the iconic 1970s TV series Charlie's Angels, hoping to cash in on the whole nostalgia trend. NPR's Linda Holmes wrote one of the most insightful reviews I've seen in a long time about just why the reboot was so much worse than the many other silly or trashy shows that mysteriously find their way onto primetime TV. To wit: nobody involved ever really loved the show, not even a little. This, Holmes writes, is what she hates most about TV:
"It's these dead, unloved, pre-chewed blobs that are spat out over and over again, truly serving no purpose other than filling time between commercials. Nobody thinks this show is fun, nobody thinks this show is interesting, nobody thinks this show is cool. Nobody thinks this show is anything. Nobody loves it, and you can tell."
I found myself reflecting on Holmes' observation while flipping through Titanic: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Greatest Shipwreck, a National Geographic "short" released just in time for the 100th anniversary of the famous sinking, which claimed the lives of more than 1500 people. NatGeo isn't the only organization seeking to cash in on the RMS Titanic's historical landmark moment; there's a reason James Cameron released Titanic 3D this year, after all, and most news outlets have obliged with their own takes on the tragedy.
The story of Titanic has captured the public's imagination for a century and inspired countless books and films, so I get why a publisher would be interested in capitalizing on a "sure thing" in these tough economic times. And as a lifelong Titanic fan, I'm absolutely the target audience. Alas, I'd be hard pressed to find a more lackluster, uninspired, and disappointing excuse for a retrospective than this. Honestly? It feels like an afterthought. This is the e-book that nobody loved. And I paid $3.99 for the privilege.
Michael Sweeney's prose is clean and competent, if a bit workmanlike, and he does a decent job of bringing a few telling details and heartstring-tugging personal stories to the fore. He dutifully sums up the various theories about the sinking, and Robert Ballard's discovery of the wreckage on the ocean floor in 1986.
But this is well-traveled ground. We've heard most of these stories and met all these people before. There is very little here one couldn't find with a quick 15-minute Google search, or by leafing through one of the umpteen prior books about Titanic that are available.
That's not necessarily a problem -- especially for those sad souls on Twitter who have only just realized Titanic wasn't just a blockbuster movie -- but if you're going to rework old material and go the trouble of packaging it into an e-book, it's generally a good idea to find some new twist, a new way to shape the narrative, something to make it seem fresh. That freshness, alas, is sorely lacking here.
Still, that would have been less of an issue if the production values were a bit higher. There is so much good material in the way of old photographs and illustrations relating to Titanic, yet all we are given is the usual smattering of archival photographs, plunked perfunctorily at the end of each chapter. Not every e-book needs to be an expensive app with impressive bells and whistles, but a little more effort on that score would have added a bit of much-needed pizzazz to the presentation.
Cameron's blockbuster film has garnered its share of snark as well as praise over the years, but whether it's your cup of cinematic tea or not, you can tell Cameron loved that project. It's a reimagining of a timeless tale, not just a regurgitation of the same old stories. Cameron poured his heart and soul into it, obsessing over the smallest detail, and he's still at it, as evidenced by the new CGI animation below -- a dynamic model of the sinking sponsored, ironically, by National Geographic.
You just can't fake that kind of passion. And that's precisely what's missing from this e-book. Nobody seems to have cared enough to bring that extra spark of creativity to the project, perfectly content to just serve up a warmed-over rehashing of the events. In fact, it's possible that I expended more thought and time on this review than anyone spent on Titanic: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Greatest Shipwreck. Titanic deserves better.
Image: "Untergang der Titanic" by Willy Stöwer, 1912. Public domain.
Jennifer Ouellette is the author of several popular science books, most recently The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. She also blogs at Cocktail Party Physics and Discovery News. Follow her on Twitter.