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Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

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3.5  ·  Rating Details ·  3,372 Ratings  ·  617 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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(showing 1-30)
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Avi Steinberg
Aug 18, 2010 Avi Steinberg rated it it was amazing  ·  (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
...more
David
May 08, 2015 David rated it really liked it
This book is an autobiographical episode on the.life 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
...more
Carol
Nov 17, 2010 Carol rated it did not like it
Shelves: memoir
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
T.W. Brown
Sep 13, 2011 T.W. Brown rated it it was amazing
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
...more
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
Jackie
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
...more
Dena
Feb 10, 2013 Dena rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Susan
{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
...more
Dianne
Nov 01, 2010 Dianne rated it really liked it
(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
...more
Peggy
Aug 18, 2011 Peggy rated it really liked it
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
Linda
Aug 03, 2010 Linda rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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. :-/
Laura Stone
Jan 16, 2012 Laura Stone rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
...more
K2 -----
Nov 25, 2010 K2 ----- rated it really liked it
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
...more
Sanalith
Feb 27, 2012 Sanalith rated it liked it
Shelves: autobiography, 2012
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
...more
Kkraemer
Dec 30, 2011 Kkraemer rated it it was amazing
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
...more
Holly
Mar 26, 2015 Holly rated it really liked it
I'd actually recently seen many average reviews of this book. So going into it I was very wary.

But Avi Steinberg writes in a wonderful way, showing the characters and depth of his experience as a prison librarian. A quirky read, it combines deep analysis into the prison system with personal stories about the inmates that Avi encountered.

It could honestly have had a bit more structure, and that's where it falls short. It does jump from stories to musings over the prison system to his Jewish herit
...more
Cian
Dec 11, 2012 Cian rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction, book-club
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
...more
Lindsay
Apr 25, 2012 Lindsay rated it it was amazing
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
K
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
...more
Sarah
Jun 17, 2011 Sarah rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2011-reads
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.
Emily Park
Feb 01, 2011 Emily Park rated it it was amazing
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
Shomeret
May 11, 2011 Shomeret rated it really liked it
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
...more
April Helms
Jun 12, 2011 April Helms rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
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
...more
Anthony
Jun 05, 2011 Anthony rated it really liked it
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
Amanda
Oct 25, 2015 Amanda rated it liked it
It should first be noted that this book was not at all what I expected. I stumbled upon it in the library, shelved amid what would best be described as "books about books." That's what I expected of this, though, of course, with a prison bent. That is NOT what this book is about. The best comparison I can make is to "Orange is the New Black."

The first half of the book was much stronger than the last half. As other reviewers have said, it would have benefited greatly from some merciless editing.
...more
Lauren
Apr 27, 2011 Lauren rated it it was ok
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
S.
Aug 21, 2013 S. rated it it was amazing
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
Heidi
Oct 15, 2010 Heidi rated it did not like it
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.
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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...

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“I don't need no Smith and Wesson, man, I got Merriam and Webster.” 24 likes
“Pimps make the best librarians.” 18 likes
More quotes…