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The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

Written by Avi SteinbergAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Avi Steinberg


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: October 19, 2010
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-385-53373-7
Published by : Anchor Knopf

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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.



The up&up and low low

Pimps make the best librarians. Psycho killers, the worst. Ditto con men. Gangsters, gunrunners, bank robbers--adept at crowd control, at collaborating with a small staff, at planning with deliberation and executing with contained fury--all possess the librarian's basic skill set. Scalpers and loan sharks certainly have a role to play. But even they lack that something, the je ne sais quoi, the elusive it. What would a pimp call it? Yes: the love.

If you're a pimp, you've got love for the library. And if you don't, it's probably because you haven't visited one. But chances are you will eventually do a little--or perhaps, a lot--of prison time and you'll wander into one there. When you do, you'll encounter the sweetness and the light. You'll find books you've always needed, but never knew existed. Books like that indispensable hustler's tool, the rhyming dictionary. You'll discover and embrace, like long-lost relatives, entire new vocabularies. Anthropology and biology, philosophy and psychology, gender studies and musicology, art history and pharmacology, economics and poetry. French. The primordial slime. Lesbian bonobo chimps. Rousseau nibbling on sorbet with his Venetian hooker. The complete annotated record of animal striving.

And it's not just about books. In the joint, where business is slow, the library is The Spot. It's where you go to see and be seen. Among the stacks, you'll meet older colleagues who gather regularly to debate, to try out new material, to declaim, reminisce, network and match wits. You'll meet old timers working on their memoirs, upstarts writing the next great pimp screenplay.

You'll meet inmate librarians like Dice, who will tell you he stayed sane during two years in the hole at Walla Walla by memorizing a smuggled anthology of Shakespeare's plays. He'll prove it by reciting long passages by heart. Dice wears sunglasses and is an ideologue. He'll try to persuade you of the "virtues of vice." He'll tell you that a prison library "ain't a place to better yourself, it's a place to get better at getting worse." He'll bully you into reading Shelley's Frankenstein, and he'll bully you further into believing that it's "our story"--by which he means the story of pimps, a specialized class of men, a priesthood, who live according to the dictates of Nature.

He means it. Like many a pimp preoccupied by ancient questions, Dice takes the old books seriously. He approves of Emersonian self-reliance, and was scandalized that many American universities had ousted Shakespeare and the Classics from their curricula. He'd read about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"You kidding me, man?" he'd said, folding the newspaper like a hassled commuter, brow arching over his shades. "Now I've heard it all. This country's going to hell."

Men like Dice will inculcate you with an appreciation for tradition, what Matthew Arnold called "the best which has been thought and said." And you'll discover precisely why it is so important to study the best that has been thought and said: How else you gonna top it?

This at least is what I'm told. I wouldn't know. I'm not a pimp. I'm in a different sort of racket. My name is Avi Steinberg, but in the joint, they call me Bookie. The nickname was given to me by Jamar "Fat Kat" Richmond. Fat Kat is, or was, a notorious gangster, occasional pimp, and, as it turns out, exceptionally resourceful librarian. At thirty years old and two bullet wounds, Kat is already a veteran inmate. He's too big--five foot nine, three-hundred-plus pounds--for a proper prison outfit. Instead he is given a nonregulation T-shirt, the only inmate in his unit with a blue T-shirt instead of a tan uniform top. But the heaviness bespeaks solidity, substance, gravitas. The fat guy T-shirt, status. He is my right-hand, though it often seems the other way around.

"Talk to Bookie," he tells inmates who've lined up to see him. "He's the main book man."

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.

In prison Fat Kat, Dice, and their ilk are the intellectual elite, hence their role as inmate librarians. But the library itself is not elitist. To gain entrance, one need only commit a felony. And the majority of felons, at least where I work, do make their way to the library. Many visit every day. Even though some inmates can barely read, the prison library is packed. And when things get crowded, the atmosphere is more like a speakeasy than a quiet reading room. This place is, after all, the library of "all rogues, vagabonds, persons using any subtle craft, juggling, or unlawful games or plays, common pipers, fiddlers, runaways, stubborn children, drunkards, nightwalkers, pilferers, wanton and lascivious persons, railers and brawlers." This according to a nineteenth-century state government report. I've met only one fiddler. No pipers, common or otherwise. But I do meet a good number of rappers and MCs. With the addition of gun-toting gangbangers and coke dealers, the old catalog remains fairly accurate.

Which is all to say that a library in prison is significantly different than a library in the real world. Yes, there are book clubs, poetry readings, and moments of silent reflection. But there isn't much shushing. As a prison crossroads, a place where hundreds of inmates come to deal with their pressing issues, where officers and other staff stop by to hang out and mix things up, the pace of a prison library is social and up-tempo. I spend much of my time running.

The chaos begins right away. There is no wake-up call more effective than twenty-five convicts in matching uniforms coming at you first thing in the morning.

First come the greetings. This takes a while. Inmates exchange intricate handshakes and formal titles: OG, young G, boo, bro, baby boy, brutha, dude, cuz, dawg, P, G, daddy, pimpin', nigga, man, thug thizzle, my boy, my man, homie. Then, the nicknames: Flip, Hood, Lil Haiti, Messiah, Bleach, Bombay, K*Shine, Rib, Swi$$, Tu-Shay, The Truth, Black, Boat, Forty, Fifty (no Sixty), Giz, Izz, Rizz, Fizz, Shizz, Lil Shizz, Frenchy, P-Rico, Country, Dro, Turk, T, Africa . . .

And, yes, occasionally, Bookie. Incidentally I have other, less-used prison nicknames: Slim, Harvard, Jew-Fro (though my hair is stick straight). Mostly, people just call me Arvin or Harvey.

Next comes business. Every inmate wants a magazine and/or newspaper. Most inmates also want a "street book," the wildly popular pulp "hip-hop novels" whose titles tend to have the word hustler in them. I let Fat Kat handle these requests. Kat keeps a secret stash and runs a snug little business in these books, to which I--for mostly self-interested reasons--turn a blind eye. We have a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Then comes a flurry of random requests. Some legit, some not. Demands to make illicit calls to the courts, to parole boards, to "my mans on the outs," to mommas and babymommas, wifeys and wifey-wifeys. All denied. Whispered requests for information on AIDS, for information on the significance of blood in urine, for help reading a letter. All noted. I dismiss inmates' requests to use my Internet for "just one second." I deflect an inmate's charges that I'm an Israeli spy; confirm that indeed, I really did go to Harvard, ignore the follow-up question of why I ended up working in prison if I graduated from Harvard. I give serious thought to an inmate's request for me to check his rap album's website. I am, after all, the prison's self-appointed CGO, Chief Google Officer.

I field legal queries. I am asked about the legal distinction between homicide and manslaughter, the terms of probation, sentencing guidelines, the laws relating to kidnapping one's own children, of extradition, of armed robbery with a grenade. There are also clever criminals: a guy who wants to learn state regulations regarding antique guns and antique ammunition, items he hopes might be governed by laxer laws and fraught with loopholes. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice an inmate sporting a marker-drawn musketeer-style mustache, talking to himself in a phony posh English accent. Somebody might need to take his meds. I note this, as well.

An inmate thanks me for my suggestion that he listen to "Sherbert" at our listening station. (He means Schubert.) Inmates ask me for a book about the band Nirvana, about the state of nirvana; for a self-help guide for fathers; for a yoga book; a book on "how to mix chemicals"; a guide to real estate. Ignoring the chemicals request, I suggest "Dummies" guides. I do this diplomatically, since inmates have been sensitive in the past to the possibility that I may be calling them dummies. A caseworker suddenly appears--she's a crazy woman who talks nonstop and tells wild lies of dating European royals. She wants to borrow a book on tigers. Waiting patiently is C.C. Too Sweet, a mercurial, balding pimp memoirist who wants me to edit his revised manuscript.

My main challenge is to focus on the tasks at hand and not get sucked into the pimp and hustler gabfests. These are always entertaining and occasionally lead to fascinating discussions. I overhear an elder pimp tell an apprentice, "I wasn't born, son, I was hatched." But before I hear where that conversation is going, Ty pokes his way to the front of the line and politely demands to talk with me. Immediately.

He is a tower of an eighteen-year-old with a baby face and a jaw that can probably split a walnut shell in one clean crack. Today he looks spooked. As soon as I close my door--something I rarely do--Ty bursts into tears. His mother died last month and he was unable to attend the out-of-state funeral; yesterday his long-estranged father showed up in prison. These are not unusual issues in prison. I've encountered them many times before, but I still have no answers for him.

As he tells me his story, I look out the office window toward the library, wondering what atrocities are taking place in my absence. This is what I call Prison ADD: the inability to ever be present because there's always something potentially heinous occurring nearby, something that is probably your responsibility. Ty is inconsolable.

While he cries, I try to gather my thoughts. I've posted a sheet on my wall, next to my desk. It's a wordfind game that an inmate has created and sells to other inmates for the equivalent of fifty cents a pop. Thirty-eight terms, mixed into a jumble of letters. The words are listed, in roughly alphabetical order, at the side of the sheet. They form something of a mantra I use to orient myself in situations like this one.

Titled "Things Found in Prison," the list reads: attitude, bail bondsman, booking, contraband, count time, canteen, cellie [i.e., cellmate], drama, depression, family, fence, grievance, gossip, hunger, habe [short for habeas corpus], handcuffs, indigent, ID card, isolation, lawyer, medication, meditation, mail, noise, officer, PIN number, prayer, quarantine, recreation, rules, shower shoes, sheriff, solitude, telephone, tears, uniforms, worry, yard. I'm forced to reschedule a meeting with Ty. Right now, I have to help the guy who thought it would be a good idea to rob a liquor store with a live grenade. In the prison library, it's first-come, first-served.

. . . hunger, habe, handcuffs, indigent . . .

The hour has passed. The inmates in green uniforms finally leave, returning to the block to play chess and watch Judge Judy or Days of Our Lives. A new group of inmates is on its way. This will go on for two full shifts, until 9 p.m. when all the inmates will gather in front of TVs--self-segregated by race--to watch Prison Break. I take in a deep breath of recycled prison air.

. . . rules, shower shoes, sheriff, solitude, telephone, tears . . .

Before the next group arrives, Officer Malone saunters in. He and I undertake the regular task of scanning bookshelves, and other dark corners, for contraband, or for something that might be missing, especially something that can be refashioned into a weapon. This includes just about anything. We look for notes wedged into books by inmates, left for another inmate to pick up. Many of these notes are intended for the female inmates, who come down from their tower blocks at a separate time. I retrieve handfuls of these confessional letters every day. Taken as a whole literature, they give me an insight into the secret lives and concerns of inmates. I let some of the better ones pass under my radar.

Malone and I drop down to our knees simultaneously, Muslim prayer-style. We're not entreating a deity, though, but sweeping under the shelves for contraband.

. . . mail, noise, officer, PIN number, prayer . . .

Malone likes to talk. He tells me about his time in the service, about working in a paper mill. He advises me to trade in my bicycle for a Ford S150, like his. He tells me about his wife, who went back to school. She's smarter than he is, he admits. He resumes a line of conversation we've had off and on for months: he wants to help me out. I seem like a good kid, he tells me with a shrug. I should get a raise, more vaca, better retirement. My union is shitty. He urges me to join his, to become a prison guard.

I am, he says, already most of the way there.

From the Hardcover edition.
Avi Steinberg|Author Q&A

About Avi Steinberg

Avi Steinberg - Running the Books

Photo © Brian Fredric Harris

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 Boston Globe, the New York Times Magazine, Salon, and other publications.

Author Q&A

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.”
USA Today
“[A] page turner. . . . Wry, captivating. . . . An impressive account of a world that few readers of this newspaper will recognize.”
The Economist
“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.”
The Forward
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

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