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Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 19, 2010

4.1 out of 5 stars 103 customer reviews

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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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese (October 19, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385529090
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385529099
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.3 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (103 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #938,203 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"Running the Books" is a reminder of the indomitable human spirit even when it is caged as a result of its more wayward and reckless predilections. Liberty may be incarcerated but Life and the pursuit of Happiness reign supreme even inside the prison walls.

Avi Steinberg has written a love story of sorts. Love tends to manifest itself in serendipitous ways and often takes us by surprise. I'm sure Mr. Steinberg tried to maintain a "professional distance of the heart". But, for two prisoners in particular, the tendrils of human connection pushed their way through the cracks in the concrete of prison protocol and reached Avi's core.

Jessica and Chudney reached into the core of my being also, and I really didn't want them to. I thought "Running the Books" was going to be more humorous than pensive. But those tendrils reached through the concrete of my own stand-offish heart and here I am, still thinking about two people who I will never meet.

Of the two, Jessica captured me the most. She had hope, but the reality of how her choices and addictions had wounded others weighed heavily on her heart. She wanted to hope, but she was a realist. She knew that some habits can't be broken and some relationships can't be healed. Some people can hope and with that hope forge a new life, but she knew that option wasn't for her.

Chudney is the opposite of Jessica, ever hopeful and optimistic. He made plans so that when he left prison behind him, it would be for good. As a reader I was rooting for him. As I read along I kept hoping he would make it. I couldn't wait to cheer his successes. In my mind, he was going to make it! I just knew he was. There were only two options for him: quick success or struggling but finally making it. Failure wasn't a thought.
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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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