Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

3.9 22
by Avi Steinberg

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In the tradition of A. J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically, a hilarious immersion memoir of one lapsed Orthodox Jew’s stint as a prison librarian.

A few years after graduating from Harvard, Avi Steinberg is stumped. While his friends are getting married and get­ting promoted, Steinberg has grown dissatisfied with the

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In the tradition of A. J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically, a hilarious immersion memoir of one lapsed Orthodox Jew’s stint as a prison librarian.

A few years after graduating from Harvard, Avi Steinberg is stumped. While his friends are getting married and get­ting promoted, Steinberg has grown dissatisfied with the insu­larities of his upbringing, from the Orthodox Jewish sense of “chosenness” to his Ivy League education, its secular counter­part. Anxious to shed the ideologies of his background, and seeking direction, Steinberg takes a job as a librarian in a tough Boston prison. He’s about as far from his comfort zone as he can get.

Steinberg’s new quarters attract a crowd of quirky regulars seeking connection with the outside world, among them an amiable pimp who solicits Steinberg’s help in writing his memoir, an industrious gangster who dreams of hosting a cooking show titled Thug Sizzle, a tyrannical officer who insti­gates a major altercation over a Post-it note, and an ex-stripper who asks Steinberg to orchestrate a reunion with her estranged son when he unexpectedly shows up behind bars. Over time, Steinberg creates a unique community for these outcasts and forms unlikely personal relationships, which he recounts with heartbreak and humor. His experience leads him to a deeper sense of purpose and turns him into the person that a yeshiva never could.

Running the Books is a trenchant exploration of prison culture and a refreshingly entertaining tale of one young man’s earnest attempt to find his place in the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this captivating memoir, Steinberg, a Harvard grad and struggling obituary writer, spends two years as a librarian and writing instructor at a Boston prison that's an irrepressibly literary place. True, his patrons turn books into weapons (and one robs him while out on parole), but he's beguiled by the rough poetry of inmate essays and "kites"--contraband notes secreted in library books--and entranced by the "skywriting" with which they semaphore messages letter-by-letter across the courtyard. And there's always an informal colloquium of prostitutes, thieves, and drug dealers convened at the checkout desk, discussing everything from Steinberg's love life to the "gangsta" subculture of Hasidic Jews. Gradually, the prison pulls him in and undermines his bemused neutrality. He helps a forlorn female prisoner communicate with her inmate son, develops a dangerous beef with a guard, and finds himself collaborating on the memoir of a charismatic pimp whose seductive rap disguises a nasty rap sheet; he has to choose sides, make queasy compromises, and decide between rules and loyalty. Steinberg writes a stylish prose that blends deadpan wit with an acute moral seriousness. The result is a fine portrait of prison life and the thwarted humanity that courses through it. (Oct. 26)
Library Journal
Here is a novel way to deal with your personal problems: become a prison librarian. Steinberg, a Harvard graduate, felt that he was not living up to expectations. Almost as therapy, he took a job as a prison librarian in a tough Boston prison. Like Gulliver, he now tells about his two years in this foreign environment. First, he had to confront the challenge of bringing literature to people who may never see the light of day again. Then, in a creative writing course he taught for inmates, he listened to their stories, reflecting on his own life as he did so. When it finally struck him that he was an unwilling jailer he left the job. There are some striking similarities between Steinberg's memoir and Piper Kerman's Orange Is the New Black, with both memoirists Ivy League graduates unlikely to be destined for prison, Steinberg as librarian, Kerman as an inmate. VERDICT This is an excellent choice for those considering prison librarianship, and those wishing to learn more about prison life. Prison librarians should of course consider it for their collections, too.—Frances Sandiford, formerly with Green Haven Correctional Facility Lib., Stormville, NY
Kirkus Reviews

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.

Dwight Garner
The early bits…are as hopped-up as a spaniel with a new rubber ball. The tone is, more or less, "Augusten Burroughs Goes to the Clink"…But a funny thing happens to Running the Books as it inches forward. Mr. Steinberg's sentences start to pop out at you, at first because they're funny and then because they're acidly funny. The book slows down. It blossoms. Mr. Steinberg proves to be a keen observer, and a morally serious one. His memoir is wriggling and alive—as involving, and as layered, as a good coming-of-age novel.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year

“Acidly funny. . . . As involving, and as layered, as a good coming-of-age novel. . . . Steinberg proves to be a keen observer, and a morally serious one. His memoir is wriggling and alive.”
The New York Times

“Hysterical, ingenious, illuminating. I wish I had left yeshiva for prison right away.”
—Gary Shteyngart, bestselling author of Super Sad True Love Story

“A terrific book. . . . There’s plenty of humor here, for sure, but Steinberg, in tender, understated prose, also brings out the inmates’ irrepressible humanity.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“I haven’t laughed this hard since David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day.”
—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

“Steinberg’s writing is funny, poignant and accessible. He’s the guy you want in front of the campfire because he knows how to tell a good story. . . . The characters pop off the pages—not because they’re stereotypical or overly sentimental, but because they’re real. Some get saved, others get even more lost, but Steinberg brings them all equally to life—for better or worse.”
—The Associated Press
“A freewheeling meditation on the nature of incarceration and a moving chronicle of a population that remains, by design, hidden from view.”
The Boston Globe
“Heartbreaking and entertaining. . . . Steinberg’s compassion for those he mentored clearly comes through. Yet, this is far from a preachy memoir on prison reform. It’s a young man’s blundering, but touching, journey to find a place in the world. Fortunately, he makes us laugh and—sometimes cry—in the process.”
—The Seattle Times
“A moving account of the boredom, deprivation and infernal bleakness of prison . . . [filled] with unexpected bits of comedy and insight.”
USA Today
“[A] page turner. . . . Wry, captivating. . . . An impressive account of a world that few readers of this newspaper will recognize.”
The Economist
“A thoughtful and gifted debut author. . . . Steinberg’s writing is sharp and witty throughout, but he is at his most eloquent when describing the world of his youth and his Orthodox upbringing. . . . Steinberg effectively demonstrates the parallels that exist between such seemingly disparate universes. What this poignant memoir ultimately brings home is, in many ways, obvious—that humans are, all of us, exceptionally fragile and emotionally complex beings.”
The Forward
Running the Books presents [Steinberg’s] experiences working in the prison’s library as a fiendishly intricate moral puzzle, sad and scary, yes, but also—and often—very funny.”
“Funny, eclectic, and ultimately moving.”
The Daily Beast
“This wonderful memoir is about a prison library, but it’s also about love, religion, Shakespeare, murder, the human condition, and Ali G. This is a book for everybody who loves books—felons and non-felons alike.”
—A. J. Jacobs, bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically
“Delightfully insightful. . . . How much can we readers expect to learn about prison life through the prism of its library? Answer: Volumes.”
“Perceptive, comic, self-deprecating, reflective, and pungently ironic à la Catch-22. . . . Running the Books is both very funny and heart-breaking, further evidence for Mark Twain’s edict that ‘The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven.’”
Chicago Life Magazine
“Imagine Kafka as a prison librarian—which may not be such a bad description of Kafka—and you get some idea of the joys this book delivers. Steinberg’s profound susceptibility to both absurdity and pathos makes Running the Books one of the best memoirs I’ve read in a long while.”
—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
Running the Books reads like a cross between Dante’s Inferno, Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, and HBO’s The Wire—a narrative rife with moral compromises, power games, and moments of redemption. . . . Steinberg is unfailingly thought-provoking, witty, humane, and, above all, relentless in his pursuit of a good story.”
—Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)

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The up&up and low low

Pimps make the best librarians. Psycho killers, 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.

If you're a pimp, you've got love for the library. And if you don't, it's probably because you haven't visited one. But chances are you will eventually do a little—or perhaps, a lot—of prison time and you'll wander into one there. When you do, you'll encounter the sweetness and the light. You'll find books you've always needed, but never knew existed. Books like that indispensable hustler's tool, the rhyming dictionary. You'll discover and embrace, like long-lost relatives, entire new vocabularies. Anthropology and biology, philosophy and psychology, gender studies and musicology, art history and pharmacology, economics and poetry. French. The primordial slime. Lesbian bonobo chimps. Rousseau nibbling on sorbet with his Venetian hooker. The complete annotated record of animal striving.

And it's not just about books. In the joint, where business is slow, the library is The Spot. It's where you go to see and be seen. Among the stacks, you'll meet older colleagues who gather regularly to debate, to try out new material, to declaim, reminisce, network and match wits. You'll meet old timers working on their memoirs, upstarts writing the next great pimp screenplay.

You'll meet inmate librarians like Dice, who will tell you he stayed sane during two years in the hole at Walla Walla by memorizing a smuggled anthology of Shakespeare's plays. He'll prove it by reciting long passages by heart. Dice wears sunglasses and is an ideologue. He'll try to persuade you of the "virtues of vice." He'll tell you that a prison library "ain't a place to better yourself, it's a place to get better at getting worse." He'll bully you into reading Shelley's Frankenstein, and he'll bully you further into believing that it's "our story"—by which he means the story of pimps, a specialized class of men, a priesthood, who live according to the dictates of Nature.

He means it. Like many a pimp preoccupied by ancient questions, Dice takes the old books seriously. He approves of Emersonian self-reliance, and was scandalized that many American universities had ousted Shakespeare and the Classics from their curricula. He'd read about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"You kidding me, man?" he'd said, folding the newspaper like a hassled commuter, brow arching over his shades. "Now I've heard it all. This country's going to hell."

Men like Dice will inculcate you with an appreciation for tradition, what Matthew Arnold called "the best which has been thought and said." And you'll discover precisely why it is so important to study the best that has been thought and said: How else you gonna top it?

This at least is what I'm told. I wouldn't know. I'm not a pimp. I'm in a different sort of racket. My name is Avi Steinberg, but in the joint, they call me Bookie. The nickname was given to me by Jamar "Fat Kat" Richmond. Fat Kat is, or was, a notorious gangster, occasional pimp, and, as it turns out, exceptionally resourceful librarian. At thirty years old and two bullet wounds, Kat is already a veteran inmate. He's too big—five foot nine, three-hundred-plus pounds—for a proper prison outfit. Instead he is given a nonregulation T-shirt, the only inmate in his unit with a blue T-shirt instead of a tan uniform top. But the heaviness bespeaks solidity, substance, gravitas. The fat guy T-shirt, status. He is my right-hand, though it often seems the other way around.

"Talk to Bookie," he tells inmates who've lined up to see him. "He's the main book man."

The main book man. I like that. I can't help it. For an asthmatic Jewish kid, it's got a nice ring to it. Hired to run Boston's prison library—and serve as the resident creative writing teacher—I am living my (quixotic) dream: a book-slinger with a badge and a streetwise attitude, part bookworm, part badass. This identity has helped me tremendously at cocktail parties.

In prison Fat Kat, Dice, and their ilk are the intellectual elite, hence their role as inmate librarians. But the library itself is not elitist. To gain entrance, one need only commit a felony. And the majority of felons, at least where I work, do make their way to the library. Many visit every day. Even though some inmates can barely read, the prison library is packed. And when things get crowded, the atmosphere is more like a speakeasy than a quiet reading room. This place is, after all, the library of "all rogues, vagabonds, persons using any subtle craft, juggling, or unlawful games or plays, common pipers, fiddlers, runaways, stubborn children, drunkards, nightwalkers, pilferers, wanton and lascivious persons, railers and brawlers." This according to a nineteenth-century state government report. I've met only one fiddler. No pipers, common or otherwise. But I do meet a good number of rappers and MCs. With the addition of gun-toting gangbangers and coke dealers, the old catalog remains fairly accurate.

Which is all to say that a library in prison is significantly different than a library in the real world. Yes, there are book clubs, poetry readings, and moments of silent reflection. But there isn't much shushing. As a prison crossroads, a place where hundreds of inmates come to deal with their pressing issues, where officers and other staff stop by to hang out and mix things up, the pace of a prison library is social and up-tempo. I spend much of my time running.

The chaos begins right away. There is no wake-up call more effective than twenty-five convicts in matching uniforms coming at you first thing in the morning.

First come the greetings. This takes a while. Inmates exchange intricate handshakes and formal titles: OG, young G, boo, bro, baby boy, brutha, dude, cuz, dawg, P, G, daddy, pimpin', nigga, man, thug thizzle, my boy, my man, homie. Then, the nicknames: Flip, Hood, Lil Haiti, Messiah, Bleach, Bombay, K*Shine, Rib, Swi$$, Tu-Shay, The Truth, Black, Boat, Forty, Fifty (no Sixty), Giz, Izz, Rizz, Fizz, Shizz, Lil Shizz, Frenchy, P-Rico, Country, Dro, Turk, T, Africa . . .

And, yes, occasionally, Bookie. Incidentally I have other, less-used prison nicknames: Slim, Harvard, Jew-Fro (though my hair is stick straight). Mostly, people just call me Arvin or Harvey.

Next comes business. Every inmate wants a magazine and/or newspaper. Most inmates also want a "street book," the wildly popular pulp "hip-hop novels" whose titles tend to have the word hustler in them. I let Fat Kat handle these requests. Kat keeps a secret stash and runs a snug little business in these books, to which I—for mostly self-interested reasons—turn a blind eye. We have a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Then comes a flurry of random requests. Some legit, some not. Demands to make illicit calls to the courts, to parole boards, to "my mans on the outs," to mommas and babymommas, wifeys and wifey-wifeys. All denied. Whispered requests for information on AIDS, for information on the significance of blood in urine, for help reading a letter. All noted. I dismiss inmates' requests to use my Internet for "just one second." I deflect an inmate's charges that I'm an Israeli spy; confirm that indeed, I really did go to Harvard, ignore the follow-up question of why I ended up working in prison if I graduated from Harvard. I give serious thought to an inmate's request for me to check his rap album's website. I am, after all, the prison's self-appointed CGO, Chief Google Officer.

I field legal queries. I am asked about the legal distinction between homicide and manslaughter, the terms of probation, sentencing guidelines, the laws relating to kidnapping one's own children, of extradition, of armed robbery with a grenade. There are also clever criminals: a guy who wants to learn state regulations regarding antique guns and antique ammunition, items he hopes might be governed by laxer laws and fraught with loopholes. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice an inmate sporting a marker-drawn musketeer-style mustache, talking to himself in a phony posh English accent. Somebody might need to take his meds. I note this, as well.

An inmate thanks me for my suggestion that he listen to "Sherbert" at our listening station. (He means Schubert.) Inmates ask me for a book about the band Nirvana, about the state of nirvana; for a self-help guide for fathers; for a yoga book; a book on "how to mix chemicals"; a guide to real estate. Ignoring the chemicals request, I suggest "Dummies" guides. I do this diplomatically, since inmates have been sensitive in the past to the possibility that I may be calling them dummies. A caseworker suddenly appears—she's a crazy woman who talks nonstop and tells wild lies of dating European royals. She wants to borrow a book on tigers. Waiting patiently is C.C. Too Sweet, a mercurial, balding pimp memoirist who wants me to edit his revised manuscript.

My main challenge is to focus on the tasks at hand and not get sucked into the pimp and hustler gabfests. These are always entertaining and occasionally lead to fascinating discussions. I overhear an elder pimp tell an apprentice, "I wasn't born, son, I was hatched." But before I hear where that conversation is going, Ty pokes his way to the front of the line and politely demands to talk with me. Immediately.

He is a tower of an eighteen-year-old with a baby face and a jaw that can probably split a walnut shell in one clean crack. Today he looks spooked. As soon as I close my door—something I rarely do—Ty bursts into tears. His mother died last month and he was unable to attend the out-of-state funeral; yesterday his long-estranged father showed up in prison. These are not unusual issues in prison. I've encountered them many times before, but I still have no answers for him.

As he tells me his story, I look out the office window toward the library, wondering what atrocities are taking place in my absence. This is what I call Prison ADD: the inability to ever be present because there's always something potentially heinous occurring nearby, something that is probably your responsibility. Ty is inconsolable.

While he cries, I try to gather my thoughts. I've posted a sheet on my wall, next to my desk. It's a wordfind game that an inmate has created and sells to other inmates for the equivalent of fifty cents a pop. Thirty-eight terms, mixed into a jumble of letters. The words are listed, in roughly alphabetical order, at the side of the sheet. They form something of a mantra I use to orient myself in situations like this one.

Titled "Things Found in Prison," the list reads: attitude, bail bondsman, booking, contraband, count time, canteen, cellie [i.e., cellmate], drama, depression, family, fence, grievance, gossip, hunger, habe [short for habeas corpus], handcuffs, indigent, ID card, isolation, lawyer, medication, meditation, mail, noise, officer, PIN number, prayer, quarantine, recreation, rules, shower shoes, sheriff, solitude, telephone, tears, uniforms, worry, yard. I'm forced to reschedule a meeting with Ty. Right now, I have to help the guy who thought it would be a good idea to rob a liquor store with a live grenade. In the prison library, it's first-come, first-served.

. . . hunger, habe, handcuffs, indigent . . .

The hour has passed. The inmates in green uniforms finally leave, returning to the block to play chess and watch Judge Judy or Days of Our Lives. A new group of inmates is on its way. This will go on for two full shifts, until 9 p.m. when all the inmates will gather in front of TVs—self-segregated by race—to watch Prison Break. I take in a deep breath of recycled prison air.

. . . rules, shower shoes, sheriff, solitude, telephone, tears . . .

Before the next group arrives, Officer Malone saunters in. He and I undertake the regular task of scanning bookshelves, and other dark corners, for contraband, or for something that might be missing, especially something that can be refashioned into a weapon. This includes just about anything. We look for notes wedged into books by inmates, left for another inmate to pick up. Many of these notes are intended for the female inmates, who come down from their tower blocks at a separate time. I retrieve handfuls of these confessional letters every day. Taken as a whole literature, they give me an insight into the secret lives and concerns of inmates. I let some of the better ones pass under my radar.

Malone and I drop down to our knees simultaneously, Muslim prayer-style. We're not entreating a deity, though, but sweeping under the shelves for contraband.

. . . mail, noise, officer, PIN number, prayer . . .

Malone likes to talk. He tells me about his time in the service, about working in a paper mill. He advises me to trade in my bicycle for a Ford S150, like his. He tells me about his wife, who went back to school. She's smarter than he is, he admits. He resumes a line of conversation we've had off and on for months: he wants to help me out. I seem like a good kid, he tells me with a shrug. I should get a raise, more vaca, better retirement. My union is shitty. He urges me to join his, to become a prison guard.

I am, he says, already most of the way there.

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