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Running the Books

The Adventures of An Accidental Prison Librarian
Steinberg, Avi (Book - 2010 )
Average Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.
Running the Books
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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.
Authors: Steinberg, Avi
Title: Running the books
the adventures of an accidental prison librarian
Publisher: New York : Nan A. Talese, c2010
Edition: 1st ed
Characteristics: 399 p. ;,22 cm
Statement of Responsibility: Avi Steinberg
Summary: 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.
ISBN: 0385529090
9780385529099
Branch Call Number: B-S8197r 2010
Subject Headings: Prison librarians Massachusetts Boston Biography Steinberg, Avi
Topical Term: Prison librarians
LCCN: 2010004829
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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 ... Read More »


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Jun 20, 2012
  • AmyEighttrack rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

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.

Mar 22, 2012
  • Liber_vermis rated this: 3.5 stars out of 5.

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.

Apr 25, 2011
  • ejwise72 rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

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.

Apr 01, 2011
  • floy rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

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.

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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Mar 22, 2012
  • Liber_vermis rated this: 3.5 stars out of 5.

Liber_vermis thinks this title is suitable for 14 years and over

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Sep 25, 2011
  • wilmag rated this: 1 stars out of 5.

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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Mar 22, 2012
  • Liber_vermis rated this: 3.5 stars out of 5.

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

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Mar 22, 2012
  • Liber_vermis rated this: 3.5 stars out of 5.

" ... 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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