Sorry, Mr. Doctorow (It’s not you, it’s me).

January 2, 2007

I opened E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime with the anticipation one usually experiences when beginning a highly regarded book.   Listed in the Modern Library top 100 novels and the more recent Time magazine top 100 of last century, as well as winning the National Book Critics award in for fiction in 1975, Ragtime had raised my expectations.  Even the smell of the used copy I had purchased was appealing.  As a reader you likely know what I am referring to- the slightly musty aroma of a 30 year old printing that has set on a shelf for all but a week of that 30 years.  Maybe it isn’t the odor itself that is appealing, but the memory of the first time I experienced it as a child at the local library browsing through the stacks for a likely candidate to read for that first book report.  (a Proustian moment?).

Ragtime successfully captures a period of time in America, specifically the beginning of the 20th century.  The nation was full of hope and expectations, as well as greed and desparation.  Doctorow mingles fact and fiction, historical events and imagined occurrences, people who lived and people brought to life in his imagination.  My disappointment with the book is that it took far too long for those imagined characters to be brought to life.  There was nobody that I cared about until about halfway through the novel.  Obviously the novel works well for most reviewers, but I need to feel engaged with the people I am reading about, and I didn’t.

The novel does paint an interesting picture of the times, and is certainly fast moving.  The pennant winning New York Giants on a world tour run into J.P. Morgan and with one turn of the page the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie are assassinated and Harry Houdini dons a straitjacket and is hoisted by a steel cable tied to his ankles halfway up the side of Times Tower.   If the subject matter is appealing, Ragtime is worth reading.  If you need the characters to draw you into a novel, there are better options.

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