I wish I could tell you where and when I first heard about Avi Steinberg’s memoir Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, but I somehow strongly suspect I have Cass of Bonjour Cass to thank. All I know is when I stumbled upon Steinberg’s 2010 memoir while rummage through the stacks at my public library it looked vaguely familiar. And while the last thing I needed was one more library book, I couldn’t resist anything written from the perspective of a prison librarian. So, just as you might have guessed I grabbed it.
Steinberg, in his memoir recalls his life as a recovering Orthodox Jew and Harvard grad, who leaves the glamorous world of writing death notices to become a librarian in a Boston-area prison. Along the way he encounters a myriad of intriguing people ranging from lazy and mildly sadistic guards to inmates of every conceivable stripe (no pun intended). Much to my liking, he leavens his book with a no small amount of humor, while at the same time keeping things real enough in order to accurately describe the broken lives, oppressive environment and rare glimmers of hope and humanity that he sees around him.
Running the Books reminded me a lot of TV shows like The Wire, in which the felonious are depicted as being more interesting and possibly more redeemable than those intrusted with enforcing law and order. Almost without exception, in Steinberg’s memoir the guards he interacts with are lazy, manipulative and cruel, and thanks to the protection afforded by their corrections union virtually immune from any discipline or corrective action. The convicts on the other hand are mainly depicted as broken but nevertheless multidimensional people, despite being the victims of crushing poverty, addiction and bad choices.
In short, I enjoyed it. While I would have liked if a bit more attention had been paid to the reading habits of the inmates, considering the brutal environment of the prison and the education level of its inmates, I was happy to take what I could get. While I didn’t expect so much attention devoted to the inmates’ daily lives as well as their backstories, nevertheless I thought it made for interesting reading. Lastly, to anyone who’s read Ted Conover’s excellent memoir Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, Running the Books makes a pretty good follow-up read.
The Russian novelist Dostoevsky once said that the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. If that’s the case, then perhaps Steinberg’s Running the Books has much to say about America’s current degree of civilization.