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Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

by Avi Steinberg

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating


Running the Books by Avi Steinberg
© Nan A. Talese
Nan A. Talese, October 2010

Just a couple of years out of Harvard and looking for a way out of his dead end job writing obituaries for the Boston Globe, Avi Steinberg came across an unusual help wanted ad on Craigslist: Boston, Prison Librarian, full time union benefits. He was an unlikely candidadate. He knew it, as did Charlie (Chahlie), the union boss who interviewed him.

"Where'd you grow up?" he asked.

"A bit in Cleveland," I said, "but mostly in Boston."

"Oh yeah, where?"


His eyes narrowed. "Cambridge," he said, "is not Boston."

Coming from a man raised in the Irish projects of Dorchester, a proud union man, this comment had a particular resonance: he was calling me out as a child of Cambridge privilege who either didn't know the difference betweeen an Ivy League enclave and the big working-class city or, worse, was posing as a city kid.

"Yeah," I said, "but we have excellent views of Boston from our condos."

Avi Steinberg got the job, and with this same blend of humor and acute awareness of the divide that separates him from his incarcerated clientele, he chronicles his two years manning the prison library and teaching writing classes in the Suffolk County House of Correction.
Surrounded by inmates with names like Fat Kat, Messiah, and Boat, Steinberg learns that a prison library is "more like a speakeasy than a quiet reading room." And if he doesn't have enough of a challenge corralling his patrons, the prison guards, who likewise view Steinberg as an outsider, stir up a fair amount of trouble for him.

Nevertheless, Steinberg perseveres, and in so doing befriends a female inmate who wishes to reunite with the son she once abandoned, assists a former pimp in writing his memoirs, and, when an ex-gangster reveals culinary aspirations, Steinberg gathers together cooking school brochures, financial aid forms, and even a couple of cookbooks, rarities in a prison library.

Running the Books offers an uncommon glimpse of prison life, and Steinberg’s writing is often both penetrating and darkly humorous, as in this observation of a certain prisoner’s love of road atlases:

“It seemed odd, and somehow subversive, to hand out maps in a prison. None of these men was going anywhere. For them, there was only point A.”

Avi Steinberg’s two years as a prison librarian are eventful to say the least. Filled with unusual insights and dramatic encounters with prisoners and guards alike; Running the Books is an intriguing story, and in Steinberg’s hands, well told.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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