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RUNNING THE BOOKS by Avi Steinberg


The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

by Avi Steinberg

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-385-52909-9
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday

A former yeshiva student depicts the goings-on inside a Boston prison.

Adrift after graduating from Harvard, Steinberg realized that his job as a freelance obituary writer was not satisfying enough. He considered grad school but realized that “I wasn’t going to be of any use to a university, and vice versa. And so the choice crystallized in my mind: It was either law school or prison. The decision was clear.” So the author took a job as a prison librarian. This memoir has more literary power than the usual similar fare—sweeter than Jeffrey Archer’s complaints, more lucid than Tommy Chong’s ruminations. With notes on penology and prison architecture, Steinberg describes the manifold workings of a Big House library. The aesthetics of his patrons ran to contemporary matter (“The true crime genre was…a favorite”), rather than Shakespeare and other classics. His library was a legal research center, a clearing house for written messages, a meeting place and a haven of solitude. During his time there, the author taught creative writing to student inmates and, inevitably, learned much from the many different types of criminals he encountered. He provides vivid character sketches of  Nasty, C.C. Too Sweet, JizzB, Dumayne and others. Of course, the names “and personal characteristics” are changed to protect the innocent writer, but most important are the loyalties and allegiances behind bars and the writer’s complicated relationships with his patrons. Throughout, Steinberg muses over ethical dilemmas with rabbinical indecisiveness, and his text, burdened with complex implications, is founded on simple kindliness. 

Nice jailhouse work by a bright public servant.