Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
hardcover, 399 pages, $26.00
a review copy of this book was provided by the publisher
Running the Books is a memoir that captivates the reader from the very first page. But don't take my word for it. Here is the opening paragraph:
Pimps make the best librarians. Psycho killer, the worst. Ditto con men. Gangsters, gunrunners, 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.
Avi Steinberg is an unlikely prison librarian: a Harvard graduate, he is an Orthodox Jew who describes himself as formerly fanatical and now non-practicing. Slight of build, less than authoritative, Steinberg begins his prison career with a drug test that he only passes because of his newly shorn hair (a hair sample was tested). The reader would expect Steinberg to be both intimidated and conned by the cons, and to some extent that happens. The narrative persona adopted by Steinberg is by turns rueful, self-deprecating, sincere, and filled with swagger (the result of too much time spent with pimps). Steinberg's memoir is not one that explores his family or his past relentlessly, and is refreshingly free from angsty navel-gazing. He touches only lightly on his relationship with his girlfriend, Kayla, and mostly leaves his immediate family out of the narrative.
Instead, Steinberg levels his intent gaze on a group of men and women who are locked away, invisible, and almost universally scorned by polite society. Steinberg is tempted to glorify some of his characters, but mostly he settles for making them fully human. A few stand out: a female inmate named Jessica, whose reason for taking Steinberg's creative writing class finally becomes clear (the son abandoned as a toddler, now a prisoner like herself, is visible from the classroom window in the yard below); Coolidge, a jailhouse amateur lawyer with an impressive grasp of the law; Fat Kat, a convict with library detail; and C.C. Too Sweet, a loquacious pimp working on his own memoir.
The prison where Steinberg worked (I almost typed "served his time") was South Bay, in Boston. Steinberg worked in the library for two years, and one quibble I have with this book is that the chronology of events is sometimes unclear, and the reader never has much sense of how much time has passed. Possibly this was intentional (one imagines that a sense of the passage of time is profoundly altered by being in a prison, even if one is not actually "serving" time). The other thing I found curious is that Steinberg glosses over his departure--it is unclear how and why he finally left the job.
Steinberg brilliantly weaves many narratives together in his memoir: his personal history, especially his adolescence, spent in a yeshiva in intense study of the Talmud; his attempts to understand and make peace with his grandmother; the various prison characters--guards, prison workers, male and female convicts; his glimpses of the life of the street, and the brutal childhood most prisoners experience. Steinberg gives the reader the historical perspective too: the history of the original prison on Deer Island, the architecture of prisons, and a trip to the South Bay prison archives.
The reader learns some of the more obscure cultural practices of prison life: kiting (the practice of sending notes to other prisoners) and skywriting (an elaborate communication by hand gestures, with prisoners standing in windows). The violence of prison life seems to be somewhat minimized (the reader is at times lulled into forgetting that the characters are, in fact, violent felons). But violence and the threat of violence do make themselves known in brief but agonizing segments. Steinberg saves the deepest and fullest portraits of prisoners and prison life for the second half of the book. The story of one prisoner, Chudney Franklin, illustrates how large a leap it is from prisoner to successful member of society. Franklin has his dream: to be a television chef (one possible title for his show is "Thug Sizzle"). And Franklin has "The Plan" for how to achieve his goal. The minutely detailed menus planned by the convict, based entirely on book knowledge, are poignant. Like Ben Franklin, Chudney believes in self-education through books, and the power of a written plan.
Running the Books is fascinating for its portrayal of the complicated dynamics of power and control that play themselves out in prison. In a prison library, books are not just books: books can be weapons or mailboxes or repositories of dreams. The prison library in Avi Steinberg's memoir is a microcosm of society, a complete world, a prison and an escape. Running the Books was one of the best books I read this year. The characters I met inside its pages will be in my head for a long time.