jess's Reviews > Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

Running the Books by Avi Steinberg
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Dec 26, 2010

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bookshelves: 2010

What is my deal with aimless people in their post-college twenties and the books they write? You know what, don't answer that.

Avi has a degree from Harvard (where he wrote a thesis on Bug Bunny? Is that real??) and an impressive background, but no idea how to make a living in the world, or even an idea of what he'd like to be doing. He decides that writing obituaries for the newspaper is a dead-end job (unintentional, but I'm leaving it), so he takes a position as a prison librarian. He's a shrimpy guy from the right side of the tracks, and struggles to find his niche in the prison economy and social hierarchy. It becomes one of those "criminals with a heart of gold" experiences, where the people in prison are, shockingly, actually people. It comes across as sort of naive, privileged & sheltered that he "discovered" this, but whatever. In any case, this book is well-written and it's a joy to read. I mean, the guy clearly knows his way around a paragraph. Many of the stories are moving and interesting, sometimes hilarious and sometimes painfully sad, but the inmates are clearly the star of the show. Ari's personal journey, epiphanies, and evolution are secondary in terms of interestingness, although his fall from Orthodox Judaism is fascinating. From yeshiva to prison library duh duh duh!

I did really enjoy reading this book, though, and I would recommend it to people who care about social justice and modern prisons, but have not read much about it. I would also recommend it to people who care about issues like education, libraries and redemption in a country that maintains a cool 25% of the world's incarcerated population (even more impressive, since we only have 5% of the world's total population). Literacy. Access to legal information. Culture. Comfort. Escape. Etc. Everything a library can be is magnified in prison. At the same time, the library is much more in prison: a mailbox for passing notes across towers, a source of potential weapons, etc. That's what makes Ari's job marginally more interesting than, say, manning the desk at a regular library where the patrons are not 100% convicts.

Strange note: The book is feels like a series of vignettes stitched together. Occasionally, stories are repeated or information is presented twice. It was almost like it had been meant for serialized publication, and then compiled but not edited carefully. Was this a blog or something, before it became a book? It is difficult to imagine someone getting that much mileage out of this, but stranger blog-to-book stories have happened. Anyway, I googled a little and couldn't find a blog that this was based on, so the writing inconsistencies are mysterious & weird. If you know, tell me!

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