Book Review

Running the Books: Prison Poignancy

Who knew writing about prison could be so pretty? Avi Steinberg, a wandering Harvard grad, calls himself an “accidental prison librarian” in this true story of one Jewish man’s journey into Boston’s South Bay House of Correction, not as an inmate, but as a librarian. Allow me to introduce you to Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.

When we first get to know Avi, he’s drunk at a friend’s wedding and working as an obituary writer for the Boston Globe. All his Harvard buddies are moving out and moving up, while Avi feels like he’s just sort of existing, writing about the halted lives of other people—dead people. After a particularly unpleasant conversation with an old yeshiva instructor, Avi decides to seek employment (and health insurance) as a prison librarian.

Prepare to be immersed. Steinberg takes you with him as he learns his own way, behind bars by choice, surrounded by thugs for a paycheck. Read the enlightened “kites:” notes shoved between book pages, written by inmates, intended for inmates. Meet Jessica, an ex-stripper whose son just happens to be in the prison, too; a pimp, who needs Avi’s help with his memoir; and even an industrious gangster who dreams of hosting a cooking show. Ponder Avi’s ultimate question: What is the role of a prison library?

Avi Steinberg’s writing was what first sucked me in. I’m not usually fascinated by prison, but his words … oh, his words. He doesn’t use anything fancy. He just has an eye for the tragic and/or comedic in the commonplace.

A particularly stunning excerpt: “I cross the treacherous highway interchange. An ambulance wails helplessly in traffic—it is stuck behind a hearse. Some drivers think this is funny. Some don’t. … By day, the park on Washington Street is full of nannies pushing fertility-treatment twins and triplets. In the evening, children are attended by parents. By night, the park is given over to fiends and hookers. … On the other side of the park, a seven-year-old in a tutu is overtaken by a spirit: she runs full speed, leaps onto a park bench, howls mightily at the moon, and then rushes back to mommy. The young professionals take this as a sign. They relinquish the park to the fiends for the night.”

It’s funny, in its heartbreak—as is the rest of the book. Generally, the beginning feels light. Avi is almost poking fun at his job and at the inmates themselves, at least in the beginning. It’s a downward spiral from there, but not in a bad way. This is not a happy ending sort of book. How could it be? Avi works with prison inmates. They’re in “the system,” and the treatment Avi portrays gives little hope for rehabilitation. Often, he sees the same inmates back time after time, because they never learn anything. They’re homeless when they go to prison for stealing; they’re still homeless when they leave. Nothing has changed.

Author Avi Steinberg
A particular situation that really affected me: Avi was helping an inmate write his memoir. The inmate had been a pimp on the outside—born and raised—but he was also charismatic and talented, so Avi helped him write. One day, Avi actually looked into the ex-pimp’s background and found his record to be despicable. Rape, abuse, assault: the pimp memoirist was actually a villain. How soon we forget. This was a moral qualm for Avi. How could he help a man who had done such horrible things? Which is only one of the many questions that made Steinberg eventually leave his prison librarian post after two years.

Running the Books is not cheerful. There’s undeserved death, unresolved loss, and unending loneliness. For most of Avi’s inmates, things don’t turn out the way they’d hoped, but I suppose that’s life: you do the crime, you do the time. By the end, Avi is left with many questions. He’s left with many doubts. But as an ex-inmate once said, “A man don’t got to have all the answers.” This is a beautiful book; it reminded me of the beauty and importance of books, even through the eyes of Boston prison inmates. Don’t expect to walk away from it untouched. No matter what you think of our current so-called “rehabilitation” system, this is a damn fine read. It will change your life.

I’ll leave you with my favorite “kite” in this wrenching true story:

Dear Mother,
My life is

If that doesn’t make you wonder, I don’t know what does. Meet Avi Steinberg and Running the Books at his website:

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