Avi Steinberg is stumped. After defecting from yeshiva to attend Harvard, he has nothing but a senior thesis on Bugs Bunny to show for himself. While his friends and classmates advance in the world, Steinberg remains stuck at a crossroads, his “romantic” existence as a freelance obituary writer no longer cutting it.
Seeking direction (and dental insurance) Steinberg takes a job running the library counter at a Boston prison. He is quickly drawn into the community of outcasts that forms among his bookshelves—an assortment of quirky regulars, including con men, pimps, minor prophets, even ghosts—all searching for the perfect book and a connection to the outside world. Steinberg recounts their daily dramas with heartbreak and humor in this one-of-a-kind memoir—a piercing exploration of prison culture and an entertaining tale of one young man’s earnest attempt to find his place in the world.
Excerpted from Running the Books by Avi Steinberg. Copyright © 2010 by Avi Steinberg. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
AVI STEINBERG is the author of Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, which was a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Culture Desk blog. His essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Salon, The Paris Review Daily, and n+1.
Your memoir Running the Books is the ultimate fish out of water story. How did you wind up in prison?
I ended up in prison the way most people end up there. By accident. It’s a classic tale, really. An Orthodox Jewish guy leaves the fold, goes to Harvard, gets bad grades, then becomes a freelance obituary writer, then gets punched in the face at an Orthodox wedding which makes him realize that he must get his life in order. That he needs healthcare. And so he sends out his resume to a prison in the hopes of achieving all that. Health care and order. As I said, a classic American tale. Now, why I went to work specifically in a prison and specifically in a prison library, that’s a slightly different story. In many ways it took, I think, working there for more than two years to discover what I was looking for to begin with. And I think that’s really the saga I describe in this book.
Aside from the obvious answer of clientele, how does a prison library differ from a general public library?
One major difference is that the people who visit a prison library also live together, in this estranged sort of way. They’re around each other nonstop, every day, all day. And the action that occurs in a prison library is always an extension of the drama that is happening upstairs in the cells, in the prison blocks, and to some extent from previous dramas on the street. Everybody’s implicated in everybody’s life. The library functions very differently in these dramas. Sometimes it’s a place for people to gain some privacy and to momentarily escape. But more often it’s a place for people to confront their issues head on. So in a funny way the prison library functions as much as a family living room as it does a shared public space.
One of the most moving threads in the narrative involves your attempt to orchestrate a reunion between an inmate and her estranged son. What’s the story there?
The prison where I worked held men and women, and these populations were kept separate at all times. They never ever came into contact. But the tension between the sexes was immense, a constant feature of the place. From up in the tower the women could look down into the prison yard and see the men, for example. And they left notes for each other hidden in the library books.
The story of Jessica and her son is a central strain in the book. She attended a creative writing class of mine held up in the tower for the sole reason of sitting by the classroom window and looking down at this 18-year-old recently arrived inmate, her son. The last time she saw him in person was roughly 16 years earlier when she abandoned him in a church, and now here they were, inmates in the same prison. At first she wanted to just look at him. Later she decided to connect with him. I wish I could say that this ended well, but it’s actually the beginning of a story that ended sadly.
As you continued to work at the prison you increasingly ran into ex-cons on the outside. What was that like?
Yeah, my adventures always began in prison, but often did not end there. This is actually pretty accurate if you work at a prison full-time long enough. The prison walls cease to be this barrier between the inside where you work and the outside where you live. People often asked me if I felt scared working in prison and there were some touchy moments, but the truth is that many of the charged encounters happened outside. An inmate who’s in his street clothes looks almost like a different person. I was actually mugged near my house by a former inmate and in the middle of the mugging this person actually recognized me.
In another scene you describe talking to an inmate who’s not only fascinated by Orthodox Jews but admiring of them. Did this surprise you?
Ah, yes. The man in question was an inmate in the prison library work detail. He was a young African-American convert to Islam who obviously didn’t get the memo that Jews and Muslims are not supposed to find common ground. But he actually saw a lot of similarities between them, all of which are very much there, I think. And as he struggled to embrace his new way of life, he turned to me, a former Orthodox Jew, for advice. It was a fascinating ongoing conversation.
Now what was hilarious is that he thought that Orthodox Jews were cool. This really surprised me. But he was serious. The black hats, the beards, he loved this stuff. It occurred to me that he regarded Orthodox Jews as a street gang with matching clothes and attitudes and complete loyalty to one another. This really made me think of myself and my own upbringing and I have to say, there were some connections.
What do you hope the reader will take away from your story?
I had this astronomy professor in college who started off his lectures by saying, “Imagine that the universe is this room.” He would say this in order to get our minds around the incomprehensibly vast distance of space. He was trying to get us to see the entire universe on a totally different scale. So sometimes in order to get a sense of scale we need to take this cockeyed view.
The US has the biggest prison system not just in the world but in the history of the world. It’s a situation on an enormous scale, very difficult to grasp. So what I tried to do in this book is bring the scale of prison down to a human level, to shrink it down to a room, just like my professor said, into what I think is the most dynamic and charged room in the prison. The library. By entering this human-scale sized space, I was able to put myself directly into relationship with it, and I learned a great deal about myself in the process. Where I fit it. And I wrote about this room, its life and its people, as I saw and experienced it. But I really want the reader to see this remarkable, hidden place for himself. To browse through the shelves and the secret corners. To watch, to listen. To find something for himself on his own.
From the Hardcover edition.
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