Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Running the Books, by Avi Steinberg

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg. Doubleday, 2010. 399 pp. 978-0-385-52909-9.

... in which a disenfranchised, Orthodox Jew, recent Harvard grad finds himself the librarian at a Boston prison.

Avi Steinberg hails from a traditional Orthodox Judaism community. As an adolescent, he aspired to be a rabbi and committed himself to studying the Torah with an intensity that alarmed even his traditional parents. After graduating from high school, he defected from his community by choosing to attend Harvard rather than rabbi school. After graduating from Harvard, Steinberg found that all he had now was a senior thesis on the cultural importance of Bugs Bunny and a reputation at home for being a lapsed Jew. While his childhood friends go on to become doctors and lawyers and rabbis, Steinberg finds himself drifting and, on a whim, ends up answering a Craigslist ad for a post as a librarian at a Boston prison.

In this memoir, Steinberg depicts his life as a librarian for drug addicts, gang members and thugs, pimps, prostitutes, thieves, and various other prison-types. Through his role as prison librarian, he is both a jailer and an ally to the convicts who pass through his doors. He becomes a friend to a female drug addict who abandoned her son when he was an infant, and then ends up watching her son from afar as he is brought into the prison as an adult. He befriends and helps a convicted pimp write his memoirs, and then fights his conscience when he discovers that the pimp was trafficking unwilling, underage girls. He teaches creative writing classes, and tries to convince the male convicts that movie adaptations of Shakespeare's works are just as interesting as documentaries depicting lions tearing zebras into bloody bits.

This could easily have turned into one of those memoirs that is drowning in its own sappiness. Happily, it's not one of those memoirs. Although it has sort of a silly start where the author takes himself a bit too seriously, it eventually settles down into a very readable and touching story, without most of the cheesiness found in memoirs. It has its happy-life-lesson moments, certainly, but it also has plenty of reality check moments and moments where Steinberg is either stupid or an ass. His honesty is really what makes the book... in cases where he could save face by holding back or completely omitting a story, he instead chooses to tell the story with complete disclosure. As a Harvard graduate who'd led a fairly squeaky-clean life, it would have been easy for him to fall into the trap of unconsciously making himself seem superior to the criminals around them. Instead, Steinberg does a nice job of balancing his role as a mentor and also as a naive young adult getting his first taste of the underbelly of Boston.

Recommended reading for people with an interest in books and libraries, crime and criminal justice, psychology, memoirs, or just someone in search of a good read.

5/5 stars


  1. That sounds pretty cool! How do you find these things?

  2. This one was reviewed on the ever handy New York Times book review. If the snow ever lets up, I will go to the post office to mail your birthday present and I can include this in the package, if you'd like to read it.


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