Running the Books
The Adventures of an Accidental Prison LibrarianAuthor: Avi Steinberg
Publisher/Format: Nan A. Talese (2010), Hardcover, 416 pages
Setting: prison library in Boston area
Source: Review copy from publisher
I find it hard to describe this book. When I had finished it, I knew I had been allowed a glimpse of something profound. But when I started it, I spent the first 100 or so pages wandering through the peripatetic mind of the author as he lets us into his rather jumbled mind and wondering if he was EVER going to get to the point. A self-described refugee from Yeshiva and then Harvard- where he wrote a dissertation on something to do with the symbolism of carrots in Bugs Bunny stories, he finds himself in his early 20's barely eeking out a living writing obituaries for the Boston Globe. When he sees an advertisement for a prison librarian job offering full-time employment AND BENEFITS, he applies.
The book is full of wonders. The first wonder is that he is makes it through the drug screening and the interview process. The second wonder is that he is hired. The third is that he is not killed by any of the inmates. And the fourth is that he not only figures out what the job is, he also figures out who he is and what he is capable of accomplishing in the job.
The final wonder is that I finished the book and loved it. I realize now that the book mirrors the author's life...disorganized and wandering at the beginning, questioning and tentative as he begins the job, and finally poignant, moving and inspirational at the end, as he finds ways to bring something positive into the lives of many of his 'patrons.'
There are extraordinarily touching stories in here. For those of us who are librarians, who subscribe to an ethic of providing service and not passing judgments, this is a frustrating book. Steinberg never went to library school, he never worked in a library--although as a Harvard grad he certainly was familiar with the library's resources. In the prison setting, he finds himself faced with rules and regulations that severely impact his ability to provide traditional library service; he is required to distrust, to question, to doubt, and to view each patron as a potential problem. Somehow, he manages to maintain his humanity while bringing some humaneness to the job and to his patrons.
While the library part of the story is interesting, and gives us a glimpse of the inner workings of a system most of us hope never to encounter, it is in the role of Creative Writing teacher that Steinberg shines. The prison library is part of the Education Department mandated for prisons. So Steinberg's job description included teaching this class to inmates. His Harvard education stands him well here, because he has inmates reading Proust, Plata, Plath and writing, and writing, and writing. One inmate is writing his memoirs, another writes poetry, another a letter to her son. The ability to express themselves in these classes is often the only way many of them have to communicate what has been bottled up for a lifetime. His mentoring helps them unlace their tightly held emotions.
As I said, when I closed the book, I had to stop and take a deep breath. It was a powerful, deeply moving story- a view of librarianship that most of us will never experience. It is a VERY GOOD book. It is encouraging to know that such talented and feeling young people are coming into the work force. It helps those of us in our 'golden years' sleep more soundly.
NOW.....we had the drawing and have two winners. They have already been notified by email and responded, so their books are on the way.
The Winners Are: