- Paperback: 416 pages
- Publisher: Anchor (October 4, 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0767931319
- ISBN-13: 978-0767931311
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 93 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #795,017 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian Paperback – October 4, 2011
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A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
“Acidly funny. . . . As involving, and as layered, as a good coming-of-age novel. . . . Steinberg proves to be a keen observer, and a morally serious one. His memoir is wriggling and alive.”
—The New York Times
“Hysterical, ingenious, illuminating. I wish I had left yeshiva for prison right away.”
—Gary Shteyngart, bestselling author of Super Sad True Love Story
“A terrific book. . . . There’s plenty of humor here, for sure, but Steinberg, in tender, understated prose, also brings out the inmates’ irrepressible humanity.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“I haven’t laughed this hard since David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day.”
—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
“Steinberg’s writing is funny, poignant and accessible. He’s the guy you want in front of the campfire because he knows how to tell a good story. . . . The characters pop off the pages—not because they’re stereotypical or overly sentimental, but because they’re real. Some get saved, others get even more lost, but Steinberg brings them all equally to life—for better or worse.”
—The Associated Press
“A freewheeling meditation on the nature of incarceration and a moving chronicle of a population that remains, by design, hidden from view.”
—The Boston Globe
“Heartbreaking and entertaining. . . . Steinberg’s compassion for those he mentored clearly comes through. Yet, this is far from a preachy memoir on prison reform. It’s a young man’s blundering, but touching, journey to find a place in the world. Fortunately, he makes us laugh and—sometimes cry—in the process.”
—The Seattle Times
“A moving account of the boredom, deprivation and infernal bleakness of prison . . . [filled] with unexpected bits of comedy and insight.”
“[A] page turner. . . . Wry, captivating. . . . An impressive account of a world that few readers of this newspaper will recognize.”
“A thoughtful and gifted debut author. . . . Steinberg’s writing is sharp and witty throughout, but he is at his most eloquent when describing the world of his youth and his Orthodox upbringing. . . . Steinberg effectively demonstrates the parallels that exist between such seemingly disparate universes. What this poignant memoir ultimately brings home is, in many ways, obvious—that humans are, all of us, exceptionally fragile and emotionally complex beings.”
“Running the Books presents [Steinberg’s] experiences working in the prison’s library as a fiendishly intricate moral puzzle, sad and scary, yes, but also—and often—very funny.”
“Funny, eclectic, and ultimately moving.”
—The Daily Beast
“This wonderful memoir is about a prison library, but it’s also about love, religion, Shakespeare, murder, the human condition, and Ali G. This is a book for everybody who loves books—felons and non-felons alike.”
—A. J. Jacobs, bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically
“Delightfully insightful. . . . How much can we readers expect to learn about prison life through the prism of its library? Answer: Volumes.”
“Perceptive, comic, self-deprecating, reflective, and pungently ironic à la Catch-22. . . . Running the Books is both very funny and heart-breaking, further evidence for Mark Twain’s edict that ‘The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven.’”
—Chicago Life Magazine
“Imagine Kafka as a prison librarian—which may not be such a bad description of Kafka—and you get some idea of the joys this book delivers. Steinberg’s profound susceptibility to both absurdity and pathos makes Running the Books one of the best memoirs I’ve read in a long while.”
—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
“Running the Books reads like a cross between Dante’s Inferno, Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, and HBO’s The Wire—a narrative rife with moral compromises, power games, and moments of redemption. . . . Steinberg is unfailingly thought-provoking, witty, humane, and, above all, relentless in his pursuit of a good story.”
—Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed
About the Author
Avi Steinberg was born in Jerusalem and raised in Cleveland and Boston. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the New York Times Magazine, Salon, and other publications.
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My only real criticism is that he actually works at a jail not a prison. A jail typically houses inmates for less than a year or two. They usually are individuals that have not yet been found guilty of the charges against them and are waiting for a trial or a plea bargain. Some of completing short term sentences for less serious crimes. This book does not reflect life in a prison, in which inmates are "serving time", some on death row, other there for life. The environment is much harsher, more extreme, prisoners are more restricted.
This is the story of his tenure there and the relationships that formed among the inmates, the guards, and the staff of which he is a member. In addition to running the library and supervising the inmate library staff, he teaches a creative writing class.
And what a good thing, because Steinberg is a wonderful writer. He has a flawless ear for dialogue, somehow managing to accurately render the prison slang and street dialects without being either offensive or condescending. Especially enjoyable are the conversations between him and the various inmates who come into the library: wily, manipulative, sweet and shy, earnest, silly, aggrieved. The library is a refuge in an inhumane place, and without quite saying so, Steinberg does his best to make it fill that role most effectively without breaking the rules.
There is a lot of humor in the story, since both author and inmates are clever and wise; but Steinberg is careful to maintain the boundaries and not get pulled into the daily dramas, disputes, and other compromising situations. While he can see the enormous disparity between his fortunate life and those of the prisoners, he never descends into maudlin reveries, and does a tribute-worthy job staying objective while remaining compassionate. He is not naïve; he can take teasing, and he weighs his responses to avoid trouble yet honor the humanity of the inmates.
He occasionally bends the rules to help the more appealing ones in small but meaningful ways: sneaking in special foods from the outside (staff who do that are known as "feeders"), or passing clandestine messages. But these are small exceptions; most of the time, he is forced to turn down pleas and special requests, and heeds warnings about taking sides.
The experience not only gives him a rich subject to write about but it also teaches him much that is valuable. He writes about the disturbing contrast between life inside the prison and outside, without making crass judgments about the people who end up in prison. He encounters some released prisoners who recognize him before he recognizes them, and the encounters are not pleasant. But, then, he visits the mother of a young man whom he had befriended in prison who was later murdered in a gang incident after being released. The man had been earnestly trying to realize a career dream that, we are given to think, was within reach. Steinberg gives the mother pieces of correspondence and poetry written by her son in prison.
Steinberg pulls off the difficult task of describing experiences that range from touching to frightening to funny, without an ounce of sentimentality. The book is a treasure: a prison account that manages to be funny, sad, moving, fascinating, and just plain tell a great story.