The Book That Made Me A Reader
Roddy Doyle on E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime
I always read. My memory tells me—it insists— that I read every waking hour. I’d wake up with a book on my face. I’d walk to the seafront, to the bus stop for school, reading. I don’t remember thinking about it. I just read, like I ate. Later, when I was a teenager, I read fewer books, but ate the music papers and magazines, particularly the N.M.E. (New Musical Express). Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray and Lester Bangs were the N.M.E.’s stars, and I read—I followed—them every week, as they hung out with the Pistols and fought with Lou Reed. I loved reading them, but they often got in the way; it was the musicians I wanted to be close to, not the journalists. I swallowed the words but never stopped to think, to wonder at how they were used or arranged. Then I read E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and, for the first time—I think, I turned back a page and re-read a paragraph, not because I couldn’t understand it, but because it had amazed me. Real mixed with fictional; well known names—Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman—spoke to people with no names—Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother. I thought it was brilliant that a character could go right through a book without a proper name. He could make bombs and have an affair with a beautiful woman — a real woman, Evelyn Nesbith; he could go to Mexico and fight with Zapata. It seemed like he could do what he wanted. Or, the writer could make him do what he wanted. The writer made decisions; he chose his words. This wasn’t God-given — God didn’t exist. It was work. My reaction to the writing went way beyond enjoyment, or the need to know. The way Doctorow described Coalhouse Walker Jr playing the piano; the words he chose to describe something that can’t be seen, musical notes in the air; the way he managed to make me—and the Family—see them. Doctorow did wonderful things, but he didn’t show off. I read the sentences again and again, because I wanted to know how he did it. I admired Doctorow; I’d never admired a writer before. I wanted to thank him. It’s still what I want to do whenever I start a book, admire and thank the writer.
Photo by Mark Nixon
Roddy Doyle is the author of eleven novels, two collections of stories, two books of dialogues and Rory & Ita, a memoir of his parents. He has written seven books for children and has contributed to a variety of publications including The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Metro Eireann and several anthologies. He won the Booker Prize in 1993, for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. He lives and works in Dublin.