Thursday, November 11, 2010

Running of the Books

Publisher's Summary. 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.

Review. In the free world, libraries are a gathering place for the community to share books, participate in events, or simply hang out, but what purpose does a prison library serve? To fulfill prisoners’ legal rights to law books? To serve as a harmless distraction for inmates? To plant the seeds of rehabilitation? To teach how to be a “better” criminal? According to the accidental prison librarian, Avi Steinberg, the answer is all of the above.

When the Harvard educated, free lance obituary writer, Steinberg answers a craigslist ad for a prison librarian, he soon learns that his job in a Boston prison is anything, but the normal 9-5 routine. As the prison librarian, he is constantly torn between two worlds: jailer and educator; supervisor of an inmate crew and coworker to guards; friendly, but not friend of inmates. One of his coworkers confesses to Steinberg, “You’re in a bind here, you don’t have that uniform. Your authority comes from you, your actions alone.” To fill this gap Steinberg rises to the role of “Sheriff Librarian” protecting his turf and keeping the inmates in line. Still Steinberg finds it hard not to occasionally identify with some of the inmates. For example, there is Jessica who comes to Steinberg’s creative writing class to watch her inmate son in the prison yard. And there is also Josh Schreiber a prisoner with a background that matches Steinberg’s, save for the addiction and burglary offenses.

Running the Books covers an unusual subject matter in an insightful, compassionate, and often humorous way. Steinberg is an observant writer who mastered the prison lingo and culture. I loved learning about “kites” (notes left in books); “catching a case” (a criminal offense); “skywriting” (sweeping hand signals done before a cell window) and “feeders” (staff who give food to inmates). Of course, not all of the subject matter concerns light topics, but even when Steinberg delves into disturbing or sad events the insights are worth the discomfort.

Running the Books is an enlightening and entertaining memoir of a colorful period in Steinberg’s life.

Advance review copy provided courtesy of the publisher.


  1. This actually sounds better now that I read your review. I wasn't sure I'd enjoy this one when it first arrived.

  2. I am dying to read this book once I can pry it out of my friend K's hands! It sounds so awesome. Of course I've already read 2 prison memoirs this year, so I'm obviously the target audience, too! :)

  3. Nice review, even it it's not perhaps for me :)

  4. This sounds absolutely fascinating!! I hadn't heard of this one, and now I'm wicked intrigued!

  5. I also enjoyed this book. It started out kind of bleh for me, but then about 1/4 of the way in, it picked right on up and made me glad that I kept reading!

    Julie @ Knitting and Sundries

  6. Glad to hear that you and Julie enjoy it.

    Prison / crime lingo is the rave with the popularity of shows like CSI and Law & Order. Take a look at the National Geographic (yes, National Geographic not TLC) documentaries on prison life and gang stories. Unimaginable realities but true takes of life within the compound.

  7. This sounds like another great one to add to my wish list. I'm really interested in the subject matter. Thanks for sharing this with us.