CB bookseller selected as a judge for 2024 National Book awards

Arvin Ramgoolam to help sort the nonfiction entries

By Katherine Nettles

When Crested Butte local Arvin Ramgoolam got an email from the National Book Foundation last month informing him that he had been selected as a judge for this year’s book awards process, he was completely surprised. And he had only a few days to accept the invitation, which he did with enthusiasm. 

“I don’t really know how they chose me,” he says, “But it’s not every day that you get that opportunity.” 

Ramgoolam’s selection as a judge for the prestigious award likely has to do with his involvement with the growing Mountain Words Literary Festival in Crested Butte, which he cofounded with Brooke McMillan, and the reputation of Townie Books, the independent bookstore he co-owns with his wife Danica. Ramgoolam’s participation as a Colorado Book Awards judge for the past couple of years has also helped prepare him for discussing books with a judging committee.

 “I think they choose an array of people who are from different parts of the bookselling world, including some who are writers,” he says.

The National Book Foundation’s stated mission is to celebrate the best literature published in the U.S., to expand its audience and ensure that books have a prominent place in our culture. According to the foundation, this year’s 25 judges include writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, academics, critics and translators from across the country and include several National Book Award finalists.

Judges are divided into five panels to judge the categories of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature and young people’s literature. 

Ramgoolam will be one of five judges in the nonfiction category, which has historically held the largest number of entries.

The work in front of Ramgoolam this summer is now to do something with which he is quite familiar: read books. A lot of them. According to the National Book Foundation there were 1,931 titles considered for the National Book Award in 2023, the largest number of which were in the nonfiction category. Of those titles, 496 were for fiction, 638 were for nonfiction, 295 were for poetry, 154 were for translated literature and 348 were for young people’s literature. 

Ramgoolam describes the book finalist selection process in which every judge will read and consider a select pool of books from their genre. This will result in a longlist of the group’s top picks, all of which each judge will read and then discuss their top books to form the shortlist and eventually, select the finalist.  

While Ramgoolam recognizes he will be reading through hundreds of books, he says his assignment to read nonfiction will be a good fit.

“I’m a book-a-week person,” he says of his literary diet. “Nonfiction is easier than any other category for me to read and digest. Fiction takes me a long time to get through because I write fiction myself. So, this is actually perfect for me. Narrative nonfiction especially is something that I can read pretty quickly.” 

Ramgoolam is used to sorting through titles on a regular basis for his bookstore as well. “Part of the bookselling process is looking through hundreds of books and deciding what to choose for our little store,” he says. 

He expects his experience with the National Book Foundation to be a somewhat different process than what he has done as a Colorado Book Awards judge, “But it is always fun because you’re talking with people about books. That’s exactly what we love to do, have conversations about books.”

Aside from reading, a major highlight of the experience  for Ramgoolam will be attending the 75th National Book Awards ceremony in New York City in November with his wife, Danica.  

“One really cool thing is they will bring me to NYC for the awards ceremony, which is normally hosted by (actor and director) Levar Burton. It’s a black-tie event that is star-studded with literature, film and television celebrities,” says Ramgoolam.

Another highlight, he says, is being part of such an impactful process. 

“Something like this changes someone’s career. It changes someone’s life as a writer and to be a part of that is incredible. It’s amazing. I’m deeply honored by that.” 

Ramgoolam knows one of his fellow nonfiction panel members already—Tressie McMillan Cottom, who is a professor, author and New York Times columnist—and says he looks forward to working with her. He is also looking forward to meeting one of the other judges on his panel, author and political analyst Anand Giridharadas, who has written The Persuaders, Winners Take All, The True American and India Calling. 

“Anand Giridharadas is someone whom I have really enjoyed over the years. He writes books primarily about the 1%, he is a nationally recognized media personality, and he is someone whom I really admire so to be on this panel with him is really incredible,” says Ramgoolam. 

Aside from running one of only about 2,500 remaining independent bookstores left in the United States, Ramgoolam himself is a One Story Adina Talve-Goodman Fellow and a 2022 MacDowell Fellow for his fiction work and is currently working on a novel. He has lived in Crested Butte for more than 20 years and opened co-opened Townie Books and Rumors Coffee and Teahouse in 2011.

“It’s great to choose books that you think the whole country should be reading. It’s like being a bookseller to the whole nation,” he says.

The National Book Awards entry process opened on March 15 and closes on May 15.  Authors must be U.S. citizens or have lived long-term in the U.S. and their entry must be published between December 1, 2023 and November 30 of this year to be eligible for the current awards cycle. 

“I’ll be getting books to read all summer,” says Ramgoolam.

More information can be found at https://www.nationalbook.org.

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