Randy Boyagoda’s American Dreams

Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs to novelist, critic, and Ryerson University director of American Studies Randy Boyagoda. His shelf is in his office at the university, across from a window with a panoramic view of Toronto’s sky, which was grey on the day he gave me the tour of his book case.

What you’ll notice here would be primarily American books. As a professor of American Studies, that’s the context for most of the books here. But they are also books that I teach, that I end up reviewing, books that people send me...but the majority would be books that speak to my great interest in American literature and culture. In some ways, as I look at this shelf, what I notice are books that I’ve written about for various magazines and newspapers alongside books that I’ve enjoyed reading for my whole life, and books that I teach, various copies of my own fiction, pictures of my various kids...That’s kind of the main element here. If my writing life has multiple purposes then my bookshelf does too.

Down here you’ll see a whole bunch of binders. I have the exact same binders in my home office, right now I’m working on a biography about a man named Richard John Neuhaus, and all of this will eventually be transformed into one single book. Those are some of my research materials. It’s been years, and I’ll be done hopefully within a year or so. He’s a major, major intellectual figure in American life. Especially for a novelist, to have the frame, the burdens, the parameters of writing about someone who is real, who lived, who has active relationships to people who may read the book...it puts a different kind of responsibility on you. If I’m writing fiction, I can move in and out of scenes and the only requirement is aesthetic—does this work? Is this interesting, or enjoyable? Whereas here, there’s far more responsibility to the life itself. What matters still is my capacity as a storyteller. It’s a biography with a trade press, it’s not academic. There’s a real need for me to tell a good story about a remarkable life, and I take that very seriously.

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