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Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian Hardcover – Deckle Edge


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; 1ST edition (October 19, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385529090
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385529099
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 6.1 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #696,766 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this captivating memoir, Steinberg, a Harvard grad and struggling obituary writer, spends two years as a librarian and writing instructor at a Boston prison that's an irrepressibly literary place. True, his patrons turn books into weapons (and one robs him while out on parole), but he's beguiled by the rough poetry of inmate essays and "kites"--contraband notes secreted in library books--and entranced by the "skywriting" with which they semaphore messages letter-by-letter across the courtyard. And there's always an informal colloquium of prostitutes, thieves, and drug dealers convened at the checkout desk, discussing everything from Steinberg's love life to the "gangsta" subculture of Hasidic Jews. Gradually, the prison pulls him in and undermines his bemused neutrality. He helps a forlorn female prisoner communicate with her inmate son, develops a dangerous beef with a guard, and finds himself collaborating on the memoir of a charismatic pimp whose seductive rap disguises a nasty rap sheet; he has to choose sides, make queasy compromises, and decide between rules and loyalty. Steinberg writes a stylish prose that blends deadpan wit with an acute moral seriousness. The result is a fine portrait of prison life and the thwarted humanity that courses through it. (Oct. 26) (c)
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From Booklist

When Steinberg graduated from Harvard, he expected to become a rabbi, but neither his faith nor his chosen lifestyle made that a suitable career choice. As a stopgap, he applied to work in a Boston jail library. There he was responsible not only for the day-to-day functioning of the library but also for teaching inmates creative writing. A dedicated intellectual and instinctively diffident, he was almost too easy prey for tough, aggressive, streetwise, ever-conniving criminals. To his chagrin, the hard-bitten prison staff equally tested his presuppositions about humanity’s benevolence. Caroming instantaneously from profane comedy to abysmal tragedy, Steinberg recounts his struggles to relate humanely to people at the edge of society. Prison librarianship offers some of the profession’s greatest challenges, and Steinberg tells just what it’s like to suddenly recognize that the mugger attacking him in the park was the same guy he had checked out some books to a few months earlier. --Mark Knoblauch

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Customer Reviews

I'd recommend this book because it did have some really good moments and it is both an enjoyable and easy read.
Donald Bell
I would still recommend others reading this book because it really has a interesting set-up and most readers would want to know about the life of a prison librarian.
Mangoaloe
The inmates in the book are humanized and likable, and Avi shows more contempt for the prison workers than the prisoners themselves.
SkyeNoir

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

97 of 98 people found the following review helpful By Theoden Humphrey VINE VOICE on September 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This was not the book I expected.

I'm not totally sure what I expected, but I think it was something funny: something about a librarian hanging out with pimps and drug dealers, scattering literature across the infertile soil of a prison's worth of undereducated, life-hardened, embittered minds. I was looking for some uplift, here, something about how books can save even the toughest cases.

What I got instead was reality. Avi Steinberg, who falls into prison librarianhood mainly because he is avoiding the expectations of his strict Orthodox Jewish upbringing (Doctor or lawyer or rabbi, oh my!) but not making enough money as a freelance obituary writer (Another career I never really thought existed, though of course it does), does indeed hang out with pimps and drug dealers, but it isn't really funny. These are not the cartoonish pimps that floated through my mind, a cornucopia of platform shoes and ostrich feather hats and 70's jive lingo; these are actual hustlers, men who make their living off of the exploitation of women, men who are cold and calculating and violent no matter how charming they appear. And because they are human beings, they are also emotionally stunted victims themselves, sufferers of abuse and neglect and generational poverty; their less savory characteristics are simply their best defense against the world that surrounds them.

Although there is very little about the saving grace of literature and words and books, Steinberg does paint a vivid and touching portrait of the criminals he dealt with every day for the years he worked in Boston's South Bay prison, as well as a harsh and unflinching one.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By SkyeNoir on September 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I really enjoyed this book. It is about a man, Avi, a Harvard grad and previous Orthodox Jew, who goes on to become a prison librarian, somewhat on a whim, when he isn't sure what direction he wants his life to take. The book can seem a bit disjointed at the beginning, as the first section is more anecdotal, but it all leads up to Avi getting to know and understand the prison system and the inmates. I love the writing in this book. It is lyrical and many "big words" are used, which in most books would feel self indulgent, but they fit perfectly in this story and serve as great descriptors. The inmates in the book are humanized and likable, and Avi shows more contempt for the prison workers than the prisoners themselves. Avi is an idealist and optimistic, and his job tests those personality traits. A great story about a man getting to know himself and understanding the human condition. I also love the cover artwork, it's quite creatively done. I will definitely be recommending this book to others!
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Karie Hoskins VINE VOICE on September 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I chose this book because I was intrigued by the story of a prison librarian...and because one of my favorite writers was quoted on the back with very positive things to say about "Running the Books." And it was interesting...but would have been a more compelling read if - and I've tried to think of any other way to say this - it was shorter.

Since that sounds more than slightly lazy - I suppose what I really mean is that there wasn't a story arc that held my interest through the whole book. Though I realize this is a memoir - there just isn't a climax of any sort. The reader is introduced to Avi, we learn how he ends of applying for and becoming a librarian in a Boston prison...and then we just stay there in prison with him.

We learn more about the prisoners than we do Avi. Which is interesting, of course, but because he is our window into this world that few of us know much about, we want to know more about how he feels in that unreal atmosphere - and the effects that it has on his life outside of work. For that matter - I wanted to learn more about his life outside of work, period.

"The main book man. I like that. I can't help it. For an asthmatic Jewish kid, it's got a nice ring to it. Hired to run Boston's prison library - and serve as the resident creative writing teacher - I am living my (quixotic) dream: a book-slinger with a badge and a streetwise attitude, part bookworm, part badass. This identity has helped me tremendously at cocktail parties."

Because he's one of the few people we read about that spends time in the prison world by choice, I wanted to know more about what kept him there, more about how he felt about leaving and what he did after his prison experience.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By TW Brown, Author, Editor, and Reviewer on September 13, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Running The Books by Avi Steinberg is one of those titles that stands out as very different from what I am known for reading. No zombies or vampires here. However, it does take the reader inside prison...a concept I AM familiar with.

As somebody familiar with the prison environment, I'm always interested in the mythology that swirls about involving the realm of incarceration. Television--for whatever reason--likes to glamorize the worst of the worst. The tendency is to feature the outlandish wanna-be trannies and the violently anti-social.

Running With The Books is more than just a peek inside the Big House. It is about a man who makes parallel discoveries about his own life and the lives of the inmates he meets at his post as a prison librarian. It is amazing what a person can discover about his own life when watching others.

As somebody who knows, it was fascinating to see the mind of a "civilian" struggle with dealing face-to-face with inmates. There were moments while reading and I would find myself saying, "Avi, you are gonna get screwed." It was tough to read at times...realizing before the writer that he had committed a terrible mistake in an unforgiving environment.

I can say firsthand that there is a real desire among the incarcerated to be treated and thought of as regular men and women. However, it is one of the biggest mistakes that a civilian worker or CO can make inside the fence.

While it is one thing to help and invest time helping an inmate who is trying to better themself...it takes a lot of discipline to not cross a very blurry line. For every "honest" inmate trying to make positive changes in their lives, there are ten who will abuse any act of charity and kindness.
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