One hundred years ago, an ocean liner collided with an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic. One thousand five hundred and seventeen lives were lost. Seven hundred and ten people survived.
Those are the bare, unadorned facts of the Titanic disaster. But, of course, describing that epic, endlessly fascinating and (let’s face it) romantic catastrophe in such spare, soulless terms is a bit like calling Moby-Dick a tale about fishing: mere facts do not even come close to encompassing the scale of the tragedy, or explaining the astonishing hold the events of April 14-15, 1912, have long had on our collective imagination.
Discussing why the Titanic saga still resonates today with millions of people around the globe, the editors of LIFE Books — in the new release, Titanic: The Tragedy that Shook the World: One Century Later — write of the disaster that long ago assumed the narrative lineaments of a modern myth:
Various elements made this drama essential: Had the great ship sunk on her second or third Atlantic crossing rather than he maiden voyage, had she been just marginally less grand, had Margaret “Molly” Brown or John Jacob Astor IV not been aboard, had the band not played as the frigid d waters rose, had the world been at war or otherwise distracted, well, the Titanic might be simply one more footnote in maritime lore. But as it is, the Titanic‘s is a legendary seafaring story to challenge Ahab and his Pequod.
“One hundred years later,” the book’s editors point out, “we are all paying attention again. But then: We have never not paid attention.”
Here, LIFE.com offers a selection of images from the book: pictures that remind us, poignantly, not only of the phenomenal, harrowing scope of the Titanic disaster, but of its human cost — a cost measured in the lives of individuals, and families, whose world was upended, forever, on a cold night in the North Atlantic one hundred years ago.