“And though the newspapers called the shooting the Crime of the Century, Goldman knew it was only 1906 and there were ninety-four years to go.” (Ragtime by E.L Doctorow)

Ragtime CoverI’m relearning history from literature. I am puzzling it together author by author, book by book. Roth covers Vietnam, Steinbeck the great depression, Doctorow the turn of the century. Instead of facts and figures (which I arguably still do not have), I have potent images associated with these time periods. Rosasharn feeding her milk to a grown man, Merry’s fat mouth frothing as she rages at Johnson, Coalhouse’s Ford desiccated at the firehouse. At my best, I can link them up to form a semi-chronological set of images that span at least a few hundred years. My high school history teachers, fond as they were of text-heavy PowerPoints, may not be impressed, but I suspect they never liked history much, anyway.

Ragtime is written in short, non-adverbial, un-hyphenated, parenthesis-less sentences (which I, for obvious reasons, find hard to duplicate). Though reminiscent of ragtime’s staccato, the writing style puts a barrier between the reader and the text, making it feel remote and cold. Doctorow also distanced the reader from his characters by denying them names, simply referring to the ones who weren’t a famous part of history (aka J.P Morgan and Evelyn Nesbit) by their relations (mother, father, younger brother). Yet, for all its distance, Doctorow has a way of getting to the most interesting aspect of his characters using only small moments from their lives. He skips huge, boring swaths of time in favor of zooming in on the moments of change and Insight.

Recommended Action: Buy.- BorrowTBRavoid
Length: 269
Ending: a bit of a summary
Incidental Learning: turn of the century America, Famous people in history (Houdini, Coalhouse, Thaw, etc)
Further Reading: Ragtime reminds me a lot of the 42nd parallel in its scope and impersonal distance – but without the crazy poetry/newspaper/musical interludes.


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