In 2005, Avi Steinberg did what any Harvard-educated, obituary-writing, non-practicing Orthodox Jew would do at a crossroads in his life: he took a job as a prison librarian with the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston.
Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian is Steinberg’s entertaining and thought-provoking look back at his time in the bizarre world of the prison system. By the time Steinberg quit his job at the prison, he was suffering the physical and mental strain of a job for which he was temperamentally unsuited. Steinberg didn’t have the ability to disengage from the stories of the prisoners as the guards were able to do. While he did toughen up during his stint as “the Bookie,” his sense of the literary, of the pathos and tragedy of the inmates’ lives caused him to be possibly the best and also the worst librarian in the system.
We follow Steinberg through two years of negotiating the bizarre community in which he finds himself. He learns the complicated lingo and social rules that govern the inmates’ interactions among themselves and with those in authority. He makes many rookie errors while figuring out his place in the pecking order of his union, and he must constantly shift gears, so he can achieve some sort of balance between the two.
Though Steinberg works with hundreds of prisoners each week, his memoir focuses on several key characters with whom he connects above the others: Jessica, a prostitute and drug addict; Chudney, a drug dealer who is also a “foodie;” Coolidge, the resident law expert; former gangster and library stalwart, Fat Kat. These inmates provide the faces and names for a population that we on the outside only know vaguely as “convicts.” For Avi Steinberg, they offer not only life lessons, but also a complication. On one level, he’s an outsider with a liberal arts education, a lover of books who sees in them a healing power for all readers, no matter their circumstances. On a more disturbing level, Steinberg cannot escape the fact that he is, in the end, a jailor.
The humorous stories often make up for the troublesome organization of the memoir. It moves back and forth in time, with a few too many “as I would learn later” types of cliffhangers. It’s lengthy, so there is some flipping back through the pages at times to find those threads again.
At first it seems as if Steinberg is working himself into his voice. But the richness of Steinberg’s observations, the humanity and humor with which he delves into the complex value the prison library offers the inmates, his self-deprecating sense of the ridiculousness of his situation, wins out. It’s hard to put this book down because if you’re a liberal arts type who also believes in the healing power of books, you know that if it were you, you’d blunder your way through this job in the same way. You, too, would be changed forever by your relationship with the inmates. You, too, would hope to make a difference.