Monday, March 28, 2011

Review: Running the Books

As an unemployed Harvard graduate, Steinberg found himself taking a job as a librarian in a maximum-security prison. His memoir details his adjustment to prison life and the relationships he forms with the inmates. Steinberg quickly discovers that the library is a lifeline for inmates, and that intricate hierarchies dominate prison life. He finds himself involved in elaborate turn wars with some of the guards, and emotionally invested with the inmates.

Steinberg's tale is certainly humorous; that was clear from the opening line: "Pimps make the best librarians." The absurdities of Steinberg's clientele are on full display, but Steinberg is certainly sympathetic to his patrons. He goes to bat for the inmates on more than one occasion. Steinberg attempts to reunite a mother with her long-lost son, and helps another inmate plan for a future career as a chef.

For all the humor and humanity, this book does not shy away from the violent and dehumanizing elements of prison. Aside from the miseries and loneliness of prison, Steinberg discovers that the outside world has its own problems, as he reads about the deaths of released inmates in the newspaper. He is particularly saddened by the deaths of two inmates to whom he developed connections in the library and his writing classes. Ultimately the humor and the sadness are wrapped together; they are inseparable.

This is a well-done memoir written by an observant and sensitive man. I highly recommend it.

Avi Steinberg, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (Nan A. Talese, 2010) ISBN: 0385529090

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