Five Essential Doctorow Reads (Plus Three Surprises)

By Gwen Glazer

E.L. Doctorow brought history to life.

In dozens of works over a long and storied career, the author conjured up intensely believable characters--sometimes real historical figures, sometimes imagined--who breathed life into events long past. He created historical fiction that millions of people couldn't wait to read.

As a lifelong New Yorker, Doctorow chronicled the city with the piercing eye of an observer tempered by the affection of a hometown boy.

Here are five essential reads to celebrate Doctorow's consummate contribution to literature. (And it was hard to choose from his novels; so let us know which books you'd put on this list!):

  • City of God
    Theological musings and historical conceptions of the divine morph into a detective story, as a rabbi and a rector work together to discover who stole a gigantic brass cross from a rundown Episcopal church in lower Manhattan--and how it got onto the roof of a synagogue on the Upper West Side.
  • Ragtime
    Sigmund Freud, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Emiliano Zapata... the imagined lives of real historical figures join a cast of Doctorow's imagined characters to create a delicious, meaty history of the early 20th century in America.
  • World's Fair
    Visit the Bronx in the 1930s, when science promised a glittering new frontier, but a young boy is disillusioned by the shadow of the Great Depression and the looming threat of the Nazis.
  • Book of Daniel
    Moving back and forth between present and past, this fictional memoir is written by the son of accused traitors executed for passing national secrets to Russia, much like Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
  • Homer & Langley
    Two brothers inhabit a crumbling mansion on Fifth Avenue, hoarding newspapers and obsessively chronicling history.
  • Bonus: Doctorow was best known as a novelist, but he was really a writer-of-all-trades: a critic, an essayist, a playwright, and more. Dip into his short stories with All the Time in the World; his nonfiction with Creationists; and his theater with a play, Drinks before Dinner.