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Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

3.48 of 5 stars 3.48  ·  rating details  ·  2,889 ratings  ·  552 reviews
Avi Steinberg is stumped. After defecting from yeshiva to Harvard, he has only a senior thesis essay on Bugs Bunny to show for his effort. While his friends and classmates advance in the world, he remains stuck at a crossroads, unable to meet the lofty expectations of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. And his romantic existence as a freelance obituary writer just isn’t cutti ...more
Hardcover, 399 pages
Published October 19th 2010 by Nan A. Talese (first published January 1st 2010)
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Community Reviews

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Avi Steinberg
Nov 15, 2010 Avi Steinberg rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  (Review from the author)
Great book! The best book I've written all year.
Benjamin Thomas
"Running the Books", by Avi Steinberg is subtitled, "The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian". On the surface, it's an interesting look at how the author spent two years as a librarian in one of Boston's prisons. Avi Steinberg was an obituary writer and had no previous training or experience as a librarian. He answered a want ad and the next thing he knew he had landed an interview.

But this book is about far more than that. It is a poignant examination of people. Not just any people, bu
This book is an autobiographical episode on of Avi Steinberg, an orthodox Jew who decided to work as a proson librarian. He walks a thin line between pleasing his employer and helping prison inmates. Some of his stories are hilarious while others are full of pathos.

Some of the library "patrons" used the library in order to help build up a legal defense. Others were interested in novels or poerry.

I thought it especially interesting about the feeling of respect that gang members had for
Gave this one the old college try -- got about a hundred pages in and realized I was so not into the book that I gave up. I had high hopes for this book, a memoir written by a (relatively) young man who accepts a job as a prison librarian. Unfortunately, the book failed to hold my interest or capture my attention. A vicious edit might have helped; but part of the problem was that even though you'd think the author would have gained much in the way of both experience and insight, the author just ...more
TW Brown
Running The Books by Avi Steinberg is one of those titles that stands out as very different from what I am known for reading. No zombies or vampires here. However, it does take the reader inside prison...a concept I AM familiar with.

As somebody familiar with the prison environment, I'm always interested in the mythology that swirls about involving the realm of incarceration. Television--for whatever reason--likes to glamorize the worst of the worst. The tendency is to feature the outlandish wann
Kressel Housman
Friends and readers of my book reviews all know my main interests in life apart from my family: Judaism and books. I don’t know if it comes across as clearly, but I also have a long-standing and deep interest in poverty and solutions to it. So when I learned of this memoir in which an ex-yeshiva student becomes a librarian and creative writing teacher in a prison, I knew I had to check it out. The book has some minor apikorsos (Jewish heresy) and a whole lot of cursing and vulgarity, but ultimat ...more
I loved this book. I couldn't help it. It didn't matter that I was constantly asking myself questions about exploitation, about who has the right to tell what stories, and about the boundaries between fact and fiction. (Although if you know me, you know I have few problems with the latter.)

But, ultimately, I loved Running the Books for purely personal reasons. I volunteered as a tutor in a men's prison when I was an Ivy League undergrad. It didn't give me all the answers, and it didn't give me t
{Edit: I clicked on 4-stars even though I think this is a 4 1/2-star book and I usually round up, so I'm changing it to be one of my few 5-stars.]

4 1/2 stars. Although I'm not the first to quote it, I love the first few lines of this memoir:

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 libra
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
(Disclaimer: I know the author's mother.)

I began reading this book precisely because I do know the author's mother, and without any real interest in the subject of prison libraries. It is a testament to Steinberg's storytelling gift that I found myself unable to put it down. Alternately funny, heartbreaking, and thoughtful, Steinberg maintains a nuanced view of human nature throughout, making any equally thoughtful reader think hard about sticky questions such as good and evil, crime and redempt
A most excellent opening paragraph leads the way into a a book that's part memoir, part expose, and part biography of the prisoners Steinberg meets. It's funny and fascinating, but it's also thoughtful and poignant. If you're looking for answers one way or the other about prisoners and the prison system, this isn't your book. But if you're looking for a chance to meet some interesting people and see the impact of prison on them, them on prison, and all of it on a civilian employee, then definite ...more
This was a more personal book than I was expecting. There was still plenty of insight into the working life of a prison librarian-- even if he isn't a *real* librarian (no MLS). The most disturbing thing was that I don't think his clientele was much scarier or more unruly than mine. :-/
K2 -----
I have written to a young woman in prison for over ten years. It's one of those things I'd like to be remembered were the tables turned.

Avi, the book's author and a Harvard graduate, got a job as a prison librarian with no education in library science. He is obviously a young man with a good heart and I think he does a good job trying to explain to someone "on the outside" the culture of prison.

I thought it was well done although obviously it is a first book too with the usual flaws of a young
Laura Stone
At the end of the day, this book was just "meh" for me. It had so much potential, as it had a lot of elements I could relate to, but at the end of the day I felt it was scattered, poorly edited, and slightly pretentious.

Things I liked: I felt it was a frank description that mirrored my perceptions of prison life. Additionally, I enjoyed the author's comments and analysis of his position there: anyone who spends time looking at the prison system sees that it is designed to punish, isolate, and d
As a teacher, I have collected stories for years, and often use them as metaphors for thinking about my own life. Steinberg does the same, though his stories come from people whose lives, both inside prison and out, are intensely different from the students and teachers I've known all these years.

Steinberg is a prison librarian, a many devoted to offering stories to his clients and, as it turns out, to collecting these stories for making sense of the world. He introduces himself as a yeshiva dro
This book was ok. It held great promise that it never achieved. The book is at its best when it is painting vignettes of the narrator's experience, and at its weakest when it philosophizes about the meaning of it all and lessons learned. Individual stories in the book work well, but tied together the tone and style are inconsistent and fail to propel you forward.

Through it all I had the nagging feeling that the author was profiting off the backs of the prisoners -- the success of his book is in
This book took me back to my days of teaching at the Maryland House of Correction (before I became a public defender). One learns the good and bad about folks in prison, and sees that "corrections" is the least concern of the facility. There are folks sincere about working on their cases, learning, being positive. There are folks plotting, scheming, hurting themselves and others. Light shines on the officers as well, some well-intentioned, others with a cruel streak. Steinberg has an interesting ...more
I wish I liked this book more.

It's an interesting premise. An unlikely guy, former Orthodox Jew, Harvard underachiever, kind of drifting through life, ends up working as a prison librarian despite his lack of skills and experience in the field. But like many memoirs, particularly those of the my-crazy-job genre, the lack of a narrative arc reduced it to a collection of anecdotes which were probably more interesting to live through than to read about. I was touched here and there by some poignan
Book Concierge
After finishing Harvard and abandoning his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, Avi Steinberg found himself writing obituaries and avoiding any discussion of his goals in life. Feeling a bit lost and inadequate (his friends and classmates were attorneys, doctors, rabbis, etc), he took a job as a librarian in a Boston prison. He didn’t have a degree in library science, but then most of his “library patrons” were barely literate. And the job included health benefits.

I expected something more – perhaps some
This was just delightful. Former Orthodox boy writes a memoir without being ridiculous, has a wacky job without being ridiculous, and has stuff to say, again, without being ridiculous. Also, it has the coolest cover, if not ever, then recently.
Since I had an upbringing similar to Avi's and had also decided not to live a Jewish Orthodox lifestyle, I identified with Avi. I also liked his sincere commitment to helping prisoners and recognizing them as human beings.

I got a great deal of insight into prison culture from this book, but I have never wanted to be a prison librarian. I had understood even before I read Avi's memoir that it could be a dangerous occupation. Avi had two dangerous incidents. The most disturbing to me was his enco
Emily Park
Avi Steinberg hails from a traditional Orthodox Judaism community. As an adolescent, he aspired to be a rabbi and committed himself to studying the Torah with an intensity that alarmed even his traditional parents. After graduating from high school, he defected from his community by choosing to attend Harvard rather than rabbi school. After graduating from Harvard, Steinberg found that all he had now was a senior thesis on the cultural importance of Bugs Bunny and a reputation at home for being ...more
April Helms
This memoir written by a Harvard graduate who spent two years as a prison librarian. Those looking for a read on how education and writing classes and caring mentors can help someone who has done wrong turn over a new leaf -- may want to look elsewhere. Steinberg's story is a brutally honest look at the prison population and the culture that surrounds it. Early on, he details how he's mugged at knifepoint in the park -- by someone who recognized him from the library and had even been a patron th ...more
As a current library school student, I was interested in reading this book because I know nothing about prison librarianship. My curiosity about prison librarianship was sparked after listening to a talk by a prison librarian; after explaining some of the things he did, I thought this would be a good field for me to pursue, given my previous work in education, although I had never considered this kind of a job. After reading Steinberg's book, however, I would have to think seriously about this l ...more
I read this for a book club at work, and while I eventually came to like it, it was definitely a hard book to get into. This autobiography tells the story of a man who become a prison librarian in Boston.

The author wrote in a very anecdotal style, and he would switch from one story to another and then back again with no seeming connection. This made it very hard to keep track of what happened when, and since there was a very large cast of characters, it became difficult to remember who did what
To sum this book up in one word: inconsistent. In detailing his two years as a librarian at a Boston jail, Mr. Steinberg – a Harvard grad and former yeshiva student – never quite settles on what he wants this memoir to be. There’s some decent stuff here, but the entire thing seems half finished, more rough drafts of pieces of a memoir than a finished product. I like books that capture both the humor and despair of a situation, that layer stories and subplots within the same pages, and while that ...more
wow, stunning. aside from a food encyclopedia, the first five-star book in the last fifty books read. (and the food encyclopedia gets its for thoroughness and length rather than absolute quality determination of prose). Avi Steinberg, a Harvard grad who decides to run a prison library in Boston, creates a daring, strong work that runs the gamut of human experience and emotion. counterplaying his nerdy bookish / jewish academic self against the frailty of human life in hard settings, the result i ...more
OK, I get it. You're kind of a weenie, you went to a good college, then had a lame job and decided to work as a prison librarian. And it was really scary and different.

By the end of the first third of the book I was done. This guy doesn't really have a story to tell. He just took a weird job.
p.81 This letter from one woman to another...maybe the voice America has been waiting for: the diesel-fueled lesbian hybrid of Saul Bellow's Augie March and Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle.
p.237 Nobody want to mess with a loose cannon. This was the credo of the Sheriff Librarian.

The storyline oscillates between high comedy and tragedy. The author uses humor to comes to terms with the foreign culture of the prison.

Showing the humanity of the prisoners is one of the more interesting aspects of the novel.
Corky (Corinne)
I loved this and his view of the inmates and the stories of their lives.
I have wondered if he has continued to work within the prison system.
A great read!
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Avi Steinberg's first book, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, was a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Culture Desk blog. His essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Salon, The Paris Review Daily and n+1.
More about Avi Steinberg...
The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri Tinkering With the Word of God Let's Go Eastern Europe 2002 The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages

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“I don't need no Smith and Wesson, man, I got Merriam and Webster.” 20 likes
“Pimps make the best librarians.” 17 likes
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