Avi Steinberg is stumped. After defecting from yeshiva to Harvard, he has only a senior thesis essay on Bugs Bunny to show for his effort. While his friends and classmates advance in the world, he remains stuck at a crossroads, unable to meet the lofty expectations of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. And his romantic existence as a freelance obituary writer just isn’t cutting it. Seeking direction—and dental insurance—Steinberg takes a job as a librarian in a tough Boston prison.
The prison library counter, his new post, attracts con men, minor prophets, ghosts, and an assortment of quirky regulars searching for the perfect book and a connection to the outside world. There’s an anxious pimp who solicits Steinberg’s help in writing a memoir. A passionate gangster who dreams of hosting a cooking show titled Thug Sizzle. A disgruntled officer who instigates a major feud over a Post-it note. A doomed ex-stripper who asks Steinberg to orchestrate a reunion with her estranged son, himself an inmate. Over time, Steinberg is drawn into the accidental community of outcasts that has formed among his bookshelves — a drama he recounts with heartbreak and humor. But when the struggles of the prison library — between life and death, love and loyalty — become personal, Steinberg is forced to take sides.
Running the Books is a trenchant exploration of prison culture and an entertaining tale of one young man’s earnest attempt to find his place in the world while trying not to get fired in the process.
In these trying times college graduates have it particularly hard, many find themselves having to move back in with parents, taking jobs at lower pay grades or outside of their fields, and more often than not they are left feeling like they are not where they should be. I urge those people to pick up this book, because it could be a lot worse. In Running the Books Avi Steinberg shares his memories of graduating from college (with a senior thesis essay on Bugs Bunny) to eventually become a prison librarian for two years. His greenness and nonchalant attitude toward life before entering the prison to work with inmates among the stacks had me wincing but ultimately his experiences there, and the fascinating people he met, gave me a lot of food for thought. If you are looking for an in-depth analysis on American prison culture this is not that, but what it is turns out to be more than what you’d expect considering Avi’s less than auspicious start: fooling a drug test to get hired at a prison.
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