Ragtime: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels)

Ragtime: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels)

Posted by jack_miller | Published 6 months ago

With 422 ratings

By: E.L. Doctorow

Purchased At: $13.96

Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time

Published in 1975, Ragtime changed our very concept of what a novel could be. An extraordinary tapestry, Ragtime captures the spirit of America in the era between the turn of the century and the First World War.

The story opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, New York, at the home of an affluent American family. One lazy Sunday afternoon, the famous escape artist Harry Houdini swerves his car into a telephone pole outside their house. And almost magically, the line between fantasy and historical fact, between real and imaginary characters, disappears. Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud, and Emiliano Zapata slip in and out of the tale, crossing paths with Doctorow's imagined family and other fictional characters, including an immigrant peddler and a ragtime musician from Harlem whose insistence on a point of justice drives him to revolutionary violence.
This is the first time I read a book through voice (by Doctorow). It makes my reading faster (I used to be a slow reader without it. And Doctorow read quite fast, I think).

Don't want to be a spoiler, so I don't cite the story around Coalhouse Walker here. But I want to say his story doesn't feel old or out of time when you read in this era, 2019 America, although the story is about an America before WWI (Doctorow mentioned the gossip story about many American celebrities around that era). My experience of reading the story is at the start I felt the mini-stories around the celebrities and the antagonist's family quite trivial (though enjoyable). Then, right from the moment Coalhouse Walker stepped into the scene I felt the rhythm of the story tonality change suddenly. And I found his reaction to what happened to him absurd, unimportant, him over the board, just like the characters around him felt. Then step by step Doctorow showed me that no I'm wrong. It's important. It's minor, but it's important, and his reaction's reasonable and justifiable. And finally, I felt I learned it. The more time I think of it the more I feel that I learned it. Some authors like to say Reading fiction teaches one empathy. And reading this book I experience what this quote actually means.

Surprisingly, that rage didn't fade since Doctorow wrote this book. The rage is still here around America, the contemporary America. Likewise, American white, as those fictional characters in the story, adopt the same burlesque attitude towards what the Black America is still encountering with every day. And we have an American president who's embodied the soul of the Chief Fireman in the story. It makes the story surprisingly relatable to our times.

Highly recommend it.

- mylah_green

Written in 1974 about the period of early 1900s and in some ways pertinent today. I actually highlighted portions.

"The laboring man would be protected and cared for not by the labor agitators, said one wealthy man, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom had given the control of the property interests of this country."
Doctorow, E.L. Ragtime: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) (p. 40). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

"For several years the Association of Police Chiefs of the State of New York has passed a resolution calling for the licensing of automobiles and automobilists. If that were the law today we could track the brute down. The Chief as he spoke emptied the drawers of his desk. He puffed a cigar. He walked out with the reporters. The next day a bill to license automobiles was introduced in the State Legislature."
Doctorow, E.L. Ragtime: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) (p. 170). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The first quote is apropos of recent debates about raising the minimum wage and providing health care. The second may provide context for why automobiles are regulated and registered and guns sales & ownership don't have to meet the standards imposed for autos.

There is always a strong valid reason for why certain books and/or authors become classics, and the timeliness of the messages is certainly a measure. In the pre-publication (1974) years among the most discussed issues were whether women could be fired for becoming pregnant (employers still routinely asked women about plans for a family), maternity benefits, and birth control and family planning because of issues of overpopulation leading to today's debates on the impact of the migration of whole populations due to wars and climate change.

- london_jackson

I'm still undecided if I liked the style of this book or not. I love historical fictions, and this book does fall under that category. This is not a single story with a beginning, middle and end or even focus on a single set of characters, but rather a snap shot of the beginning of the 20th century. It is a mesh of stories that bump and overlap into one another with no coherent story line. There are famous people that were present during that period, like Harry Houdini, that he inserts into the story line. At the beginning, I didn't like it but I started getting to use it, and eventually I finished the book. I am not sure I can recommend this book because I am still not sure I liked the style. The period is interesting so I recommend you start and try a couple of chapters, and then decide to continue.

- phoenix_ortiz

In a unique narrative fashion that is both rapid fire and detailed, Doctorow tells the story of several people in the early 1000s in New York City. The characters are drawn carefully and fully, each unique in their strengths and weaknesses. Father is an Arctic explorer and successful in his flag/fireworks business, but fails in marriage. Mother tolerates his rutting, but wants more, which she finds in adopting young black woman and her infant son. Younger brother is infatuated by a society beauty, is rejected, then turns to communism. Houdini seeks the ever elusive fame and worth. A single Jewish father finds a path out of poverty for himself and his daughter. A society beauty fades away. An accomplished and well-to-do pianist, father of the adopted child, comes calling. An act of wanton discrimination and destruction ignites events that kill the black woman and bring a killing response. The writing is powerful, the imagery memorable, and the central theme of discrimination stays with the reader.

- luciano_hernandez

I read this book as a kid and was blown away by it. Who knew you could use real people in fictional settings? Who knew you could address the reader directly? And of course anything with Houdini in it made me sit up and want more. I re-read this recently to see if it held up over time, and was pleased to see that it did. I still think teachers of English and US History could probably get a lot of use out of this book with high school students. There's a strong theme of justice that runs throughout, which might appeal to young people. Language and sexuality warning.

- blake_ortiz

While books usually come in recognisable, almost standardised, genres - thrillers, romances, vampire teen and so on - it’s difficult to place Ragtime. This strange book weaves a story around real and imagined characters from early twentieth century America. The closest you'd get to a classification is "historical fiction". It opens by introducing an ordinary middle class American businessman running a company making fireworks and patriotic bunting. Then we follow the story of a struggling artist and his daughter. These two threads merge with episodic tales involving escape artist Harry Houdini, society beauty Evelyn Nesbit, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, financier J.P. Morgan and carmaker Henry Ford.

Even though this book is difficult to classify, I couldn’t help noticing that its unpredictable pages had many references to highly predictable and repetitive processes. There was Henry Ford for example, building a car every sixty seconds on his production line in Michigan. We go to baseball games and see repetitive sequences of play. In a conversation with Ford, J.P. Morgan talks about recurring patterns in the design of all lifeforms.

Layered on top of this sense of repetition we have what Harold Macmillan might have referred to as “events, dear boy, events.” There is narrow-minded viciousness, with disastrous consequences. There is principled behaviour, which rather than bringing order, becomes destructive in its obsessiveness. There's also the age-old drive of group identification, which tears people apart even more powerfully than it pulls them together. The early twentieth century created mechanised mass production and the society built upon it. Nevertheless, modern life remains chaotic. This paradox drives Ragtime. It’s like a printing press casually churning out a book that a writer went through hell to write. Ragtime is a style of music based on the regularity of a march, but stressing the offbeat in such a way that the beat is intensified. Irregularity and regularity combine to give the excitement of this music’s overall effect. E.L. Doctorow’s remarkable novel works in the same way.

- cole_anderson

First published in the 1970s this is a brilliant, vivid, daring story of the ragtime era - a time that defines the American character with all its contradictions. Here real figures like Houdini, Freud, Ford and Emma Goldman mingle with a gallery of New Yorkers, from struggling immigrants to fifth avenue millionaires. Written in a short-sentence, rhythmic style echoing the style of the book's title, Ragtime is an unmissable classic from a giant of American contemporary literature.

- johnathan_cruz

This is a clearheaded portrait of an era we've all heard so much about. Through Hollywood movies and general fiction we are lead to believe that Gangsters ruled and everyone was laughing, drinking and dancing but who swept the streets? Who baked the bread? Doctorow opens up a richer vision of an era by focusing on three families, one black, one Jewish and one white middle class. We still get a History through the headline acts, such as J.P.Morgan, Harry Houdini & Henry Ford but also of changing philosophies through feminism and emancipation as America exploded into the 20th Century. It should be read by every American teenager & adult! (if it's not already) and others besides. Now an established classic with good reason.

- dimitri_rodriguez

A brilliant insight into early twentieth century America. Fascination for how the relationships develop and the characters connect keeps the pages turning. A classic.

- royal_davis

Pretty disapointed reading this..Ah well can not be satisfied all the time.

- nevaeh_kim

a very enjoyable and fastcinating insight into the lives and times of pre 1st world war America. This felt like several books rolled into one, focusing on various levels of society, celebrity, crime and relationships and well known moments from history.

- pierce_perez

I read this book after seeing the stage musical on which it was based. It is such an involving read and far better than I anticipated.

- bryan_martinez

The first half of the book just about held my interest, the second half had me frantically turning the page. A fascinating story beautifully interwoven. The character of Coalhouse was particularly engaging and reminded me of Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas at times. The novel succeeds not only in entertaining, but also in asking deeper questions of race, society and class.

- ashlyn_peterson

Wow! An American classic that seems not to be as well known as it should. An incredible patchwork quilt of a story which segues so many different elements together - beautifully. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

- shane_collins

I have enjoyed reading several books by E L Doctorow. I feel this one gives a good picture of life in america in the early 20th century.

- karen_parker

All good

- danny_brown

Having seen 'Ragtime' at The RegentsPark Open Air Theatre, I was encouraged to read this tale of Ameriva in the early 20th century. A compelling and easy read that added to my knowledge of the growth of the nation.

- russell_williams

Brilliant book. Set in early 1900s in New York State, it weaves fictional characters with real characters and events in a classic tale of alienation, political intrigue and drama. Highly recommended

- reed_watson

Wonderful evocation of early 20th century New York.

- coraline_bennet

Customers Also Bought