Thursday, November 11, 2010

REVIEW: Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg. Published 2010 by Random House. Nonfiction. Memoir.

Running the Books, Avi Steinberg's new memoir about his time as a prison librarian at Boston's South Bay House of Corrections, is definitely my favorite nonfiction read of the year and both a moving human story and a rare look at a little-known corner of the world- the prison library.

In my own experience, the closest I've come to the prison library world was my first internship at Boston's AIDS Action Committee's HIV Health Library, where we regularly received correspondence from inmates and had therefore to be familiar with some of the regulations that govern prison libraries, but I didn't know much more about it than that. When I had the chance to read Steinberg's book in conjunction with my current job, I jumped at the opportunity because the book struck me as off-the-beaten path and a natural fit for my audience.

Steinberg got the job with no MLS after doing some freelance obituary work and other writing and worked in the library with another librarian and an ever-changing assortment of inmate assistants. He also taught creative writing classes and ran various programs in the library, including film screenings and other activities. In the book, he recounts memorable inmates, officers and events that took place both inside and outside the prison, and  interleaves the story of his own life- his Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Israel, Cleveland and Boston, where he attended the Maimonides School and Harvard, and the story of how he grew up in prison.

In one very moving passage, he contrasts a traditional Shabbat celebration with a typical Friday night in prison, and later he talks about his grandmother, a reserved woman who survived Eastern Europe of the 1930s only to refuse to share her stories with her family in America. He talks about run-ins with inmates and officers that taught him, at different times, both assertiveness and compassion, and other incidents that stripped away his naivete or bolstered his faith in those around him. It's these human stories combined with Steinberg's balance of realism and compassion that make the book really sing. Many of the stories he retells have tragic endings; the inmates often traveled difficult paths to prison and once out, were not always able to go someplace better. Steinberg doesn't lose sight of the inmates as human beings, however flawed, troubled or imperfect, and his humility and empathy and willingness to learn from his environment transform this book from a do-gooder story into something reflective, thoughtful and moving.

Running the Books is as well-written as any nonfiction memoir I've read. Steinberg has an eye for detail and an ear for tone and style; the book is alternately snappy and sweet, punchy and funny one minute, devastating the next. Steinberg drew me in immediately with the attention-getting first line "Pimps make the best librarians," and it just got better from there. In addition to its natural audience ofl librarians, book lovers and memoir readers, Boston-area readers or afficianados will enjoy the history he shares of South Bay and Deer Island Prison, which South Bay replaced, as well as his sharp commentary on the swanky Liberty Hotel, itself a former prison. Let's just say, I doubt he'll have his book launch there. Whatever he does, I just hope this beautiful memoir gets the readers and enjoys the success it deserves. Books like this don't come along often!

I had the privilege of interviewing Steinberg via phone for the Association of Jewish Libraries; you can listen here. The interview runs about 30 minutes.

Rating: BUY-NOW!

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review and for professional use from the publisher.