Running the Books

Running the Books

The Adventures of An Accidental Prison Librarian

Book - 2010
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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, attracting con men, minor prophets, ghosts, and an assortment of quirky regulars searching for the perfect book and a connection to the outside world.
Publisher: New York : Nan A. Talese, c2010
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780385529099
0385529090
Characteristics: 399 p. ; 22 cm

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p
PRbos
Dec 14, 2016

There were many aspects in this book that made me love it - the story, many of the players, the sharp insight, and thankfully the comic relief from such a heavy subject. I never did come to like the author but he honestly accounts his human shortcomings and thus led me to understand the central theme being seeing prisoners as us divided only by a very thin line of circumstances. "The prophets crossed the boundary into the realm of the criminal not to comfort themselves by discovering the essential humanity of the criminal - in that Hollywood way of ennobling the prisoner, of dramatizing how they're just like us - but rather to unveil the essential criminal in the human. When the prophets crossed over, they discovered just how familiar it looked, how much it resembled the world of the supposedly upright." (p362) As our "supposedly upright" world continues to crumble into chaos the line thins.
I want to thank Avi for giving me this window into this aspect of society it has forever changed my viewpoint. I believe that this book is a must read!

WVMLStaffPicks Sep 10, 2014

Libraries are more about the people than the books, and that's certainly true of the prison library where Steinberg takes a job. The book begins awkwardly as Steinberg, an orthodox Jewish boy from Cleveland and a Harvard graduate, tries to fit in to an occupation he was never trained for, in an institution he's wholly unfamiliar with, among people—inmates and their guards—with whom he has no experience. But Steinberg is observant and non-judgmental and soon the book blossoms with unsentimental accounts of the tough (and sometimes tender) characters who fill this librarian's working day.

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Liber_vermis
Mar 22, 2012

Near the end of this book the author notes that while the United States has only 5 percent of the world's population it jails 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Is a person a criminal by 'nature' or 'nurture'? Steinberg's observations expose the ugly entrails of American society. The author's own struggle to find a purpose in life that paradoxically leads a Harvard graduate to the inside of a prison serves to broaden this portrait of the malaise in America. This is not a "fix it" book. There are many unhappy endings. This book is worthwhile reading as the Canadian federal government moves to adopt the American model of harsh, minimum sentences of imprisonment.

a
AmyEighttrack
Jul 13, 2011

I really enjoyed this book. I was reading it at one point in a waiting room and started laughing so hard that I had to put it down.
He writes about the realities of prison life, as experienced by someone working there - the dangers, the monotony, the grind, the internecine politics – told with intelligence, perceptiveness, candor and affection.
He became much more enmeshed in the lives of the inmates than one might suspect. It’s poignant and revealing to learn about the sad, victimized lives that unfolded before him as he strove to make a difference. Seemingly, the crushing inertia within the outside world - 'society' - that faces so many of the people in his story is virtually insurmountable.
I particularly enjoyed reading about his Jewish cultural background. I learned something and was touched by what he shared.

e
ejwise72
Apr 25, 2011

This is the second book about writers working in prisons that I've read; the first being Mark Salzman's True Notebooks. However, where Salzman was working with juvenile offenders in writing program, Steinberg mans the library in the big house with adults in a facility just outside of Boston.

In many ways, Steinberg's narrative structure is discursive; although there is a framing sequence involving being mugged on the outside by a former inmate that he returns to towards the close of this near four hundred page memoir. Swirled within his oft-meandering writing are some true gems. Take, for example, the "kites" -- or notes inmates leave for others -- that fall out from inside the books, and which in their concise style resemble haiku fragment, the inmate who considers throwing out books sacrilegious, or even the paranoid one who believes that a lizard overlord has taken over the U.S. government (shades of TV's V, perhaps?). Or the striking similarity to the allegory of the cave in Plato's Republic, which he shares with the students in a class that he teaches. (How ironic is that, I ask you?) Or even the comparison he makes between the insular Orthodox Jewish community in which Steinberg was raised and the various gangs that move in, out, and around the prison. Moments like these more than make up for his loosely structured narrative style.

Personally, I don't think I could work in a prison library -- after nearly a decade working in public schools. (An odd comparison on some levels, I will readily admit, but more than apt on others.) But I can't help but feel absolutely fascinated by Steinberg's experience, if not awed by his ability to capture in realistic detail the inner workings of a prison library and the various characters that inhabit its wall and scour its shelves -- often desperately -- for some glimmer of hope and inspiration.

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floy
Apr 01, 2011

This is an excellent book by a young middle class Jewish man who went to work as a prison librarian. His descriptions of life behind bars for corrections officers, inmates, and civilian employees are accurate, charming, insightful and heartrending. He struggles with being professional while at the same time trying to treat each inmate as a human being. He struggles with holding onto his soul while being part of the establishment that incarcerates at an alarming rate. He never says why he left the job after a couple years. But I suspect that, even though he was in the prison voluntarily and was able to leave at the end of each shift, the place was still toxic to him and everyone else in it. I once had a civilian job in a correctional facility and while his book made me sometimes think I should've stayed with it, in the end I remembered how totally I did not fit there.

c
cowskaf
Jan 14, 2011

Overall a pretty great book. Steinberg's voice is unique and engaging, and his experiences in prison are entertaining and funny. The one thing that this book lacks is a unifying plot -- one specific problem that the main character combats through the course of the novel. Instead, "Running the Books" feels like a bunch of short stories stuck together into one mass of text. That said, the stories are great. Prison is an uncommon subject to write about, and Steinberg's special perspective into the life of prison inmates is refreshing and educational.

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Liber_vermis
Mar 22, 2012

Liber_vermis thinks this title is suitable for 14 years and over

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wilmag
Sep 25, 2011

Could not complete this, wait no I couldn't get past the first 3 chapters. The content was interesting, but the actual writing was done by loooong lists in even loooonger sentences. This was a repetitive them throughout the chapters I read and was so distracting I could not get past it.

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Liber_vermis
Mar 22, 2012

Coarse Language: Coarse language, thug jargon, and racial slurs.

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Liber_vermis
Mar 22, 2012

" ... It was a prison library, the library for the bad guys. The beauty of this job, if there was beauty, was in giving people like C.C. [a pimp writing his memoir] a shot to do something right and do it well. To remind them that they're more than criminals, if they choose to be. In practice, this turns out to be harder and more complicated than it sounds. When we first met I had asked why he wrote with such fervor. He didn't think for a second. "The truth?" he'd said, leaning in close and whispering. "It's because I'm homeless." That wasn't pimp talk. ..." [p. 348]

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