Running the Books

[openbook booknumber=”9780385529099″][rating:4/5]

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.

Pimps make the best librarians. Psycho killers, the worst. Ditto conmen. Gangsters, gun runners, bank robbers – adept at crowd control, at collaborating with a small staff, at planning with deliberation and executing with contained fury – all possess the librarian’s basic skill set. Scalpers and loan sharks certainly have a role to play. But even they lack that something, the je ne sais quoi, the elusive it. What would a pimp call it? Yes: the love.

The book begins with all the reasons Steinberg ended up working at a prison in the first place and the introduction to what his job working there entailed. It also opens with what has to be one of my top ten favorite book openings of all time: “Pimps make the best librarians.” A lot of the opening continues in this vein with a lot of sharp wit about both prisons and libraries and the interesting place where they intersect. The memories of his time there are shared in a series of anecdotes that veer between being overly self-deprecating and negative towards both himself and the prisoners that he worked with, and moments of true light and hope that maybe libraries could bring some good into the lives of these convicts. Ultimately he manages to bring it together and strike a realistic tone that lies somewhere in the grey area between those two extremes.

The book really started becoming interesting when it became obvious the author had done his homework. He visited other prisons in the area, including abandoned ones, and spent some real time digging into the place of prisons in society. He compares what they are meant to do with what they actually do in an unflinching and bold way that almost makes you forget his lighthearted and almost mocking beginning.

I think the second half of the book is where he really shined though. He talks about specific stories of three inmates and the impact both the library and the prison system had on their lives. An ex-stripper now inmate who gave up her son for adoption asks Avi to help her contact him when he is admitted to prison as an adult. A pimp wants Avi’s help writing a memoir that glosses over his very real and very terrible crimes. An ex-gangster wants help putting together the paper work necessary to pitch his own cooking show, Thug Sizzle. Where those stories, and the prison system, lead him to is a reality based conclusion worth reading about.

In the end Avi Steinberg is a civilian looking from the outside in on a broken prison system through privileged eyes, and its best not to forget that reality. It is also worth noting that he was given next to no training on working with convicts before being thrown in to the deep end and his struggles reflect that. You may wince your way through reading about the trials Steinberg went through, both self-inflicted (drug test) and not (robbed by one of his former patrons out on parole) but at least you will leave the book with this one take away. You, and Avi, may not have it so great right now, but it could be worse.

I received this book for free to review.

Leave a Reply