Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Running The Books by Avi Steinberg

Running The Books - The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian
By Avi Steinberg

About the Book:
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.

About the Author: Avi Steinberg was born in Jerusalem and raised in Cleveland and Boston. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Boston Globe, New York Review of Books, Salon, the Paris Review and the Daily Beast and others. He is both a cat and a dog person.

My Thoughts:
I didn't know what to expect when I started this book. That was probably a good thing because it's not really like anything I've ever read before. The gritty reality didn't sugarcoat a complex situation or put a pretty face on prison life. It didn't put forth the idea that books, literacy, or creative writing were the latest miracle tools for rehabilitating hardened prisoners. But it did draw me into a world I know little about. It introduced me to people, some of which I hope I never meet. But there were other inmates that made me wonder and gave me reason to question society. And the Law Code that regulates the mental attitude and sets the spirit of such a confined community made me stop reading and ponder the origin of such thinking. I don't know Mr Steinberg, but from his writing, I think he's the perfect person to have written this book. His depth of insight, his willingness to see beyond just faces, his perceptions and empathetic spirit are what gives this book it's humanity.

Page 167:
"Snitching was serious business. When you entered the prison, you would be asked to name people. How you named those people made you either a con or a cop. There was no third option, no neutrality."


  1. This book sounds absolutely fascinating!

  2. Hi lizarnoldbooks,

    This is a rare read. Thanks for stopping by.