Friday, September 14, 2012

Re-reading Ragtime by the light of the web

I first read Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow in the late-70s, not long after it was published. It's set on the East Coast of the USA in the early days of the 20th century and many of its characters are real historical figures. There are internationally-known ones like Harry Houdini and Sigmund Freud. Then there are people like Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbit (pictured), best known to students of American history.

I've been reading it again, only this time there is one huge difference. This time I know that every person, place, event, device, fashion, city, district, mode of transport, incident, meeting, style, advertisement, invention, fad, gimmick, building or work of art mentioned in the text is available on the web on just a couple of clicks.

This has two interesting effects. It makes me wonder how much I bothered looking things up in reference books when I read the novel first time round. Did I just treat it all as an invention embroidered on top of fact and just read round the bits I couldn't decipher? Did I accept that finding out things was quite an onerous task? (I've just read a passage where J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford dine on Chincoteagues, which I now learn are ponies.)

Just as it was onerous for me back then I assumed it took an equally special effort on the part of the novelist to build this whole world for me. Reading it today with an iPad at hand is to realise to what extent Doctorow must have written his book by looking at a lot of old pictures and simply describing them. At that time this probably meant a lot of time spent at the New York Public Library going through their collections of news photographs, which seemed impressive in itself.

I'm sure that when Doctorow is no longer around to object Ragtime will be published in a pictorial version so that you won't even have to go to the trouble of firing up a web browser. What price fiction when that happens?


  1. I've noticed that when reading on a Kindle, I look up words that I'd never look up if it were less convenient. Reading a paper book, I'll just assume the meaning of a word from context. It's surprising how often that assumption is wrong - maybe 15% of the time.

  2. I loved Ragtime for its magical mix of historic characters. Houdini turns up in Tim Powers' Earthquake Weather too. Powers is another writer you can read with frequent reference to the Internet. I did just that with his latest novel, set in Victorian London, and featuring the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Hide Me Among the Graves).

  3. I've often wondered how old a book must be before Penguin Classics decide they can't publish it as-is, but have to add footnotes explaining what a jorum or cag-magger is. I suppose we'll see when the first hyper-annotated e-book editions come out.

  4. Yes the whole writing world has changed immensely both from the reader's and writer's point of view.

    As a reader and Kindle user, I agree with John above (and you) that you can look up words, references with just a click... stuff that you wouldn't dream of checking up, say, 10-20 years ago.

    And as a modest writer, I find tools like Google and Wikipedia invaluable and, obviously, far more time-efficient than my father's old set of Encyclopedia Britannica.

    Enjoy your blog immensely, David. I miss many of your entries but when I drop in, there's always something worth reading. Thank you