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Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian Paperback – 4 Oct 2011

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Amazon.com: 89 reviews
102 of 103 people found the following review helpful
Surprisingly deep and excellent 19 Sep 2010
By Theoden Humphrey - Published on Amazon.com
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. These people are complex, despite society's desire to affix simplistic labels and shove them into an appropriate drawer labeled "criminal" or "convict" or "scum." Some of them -- many of them -- are cruel and violent and dangerous, as evidenced by the encounters Steinberg has with them on the outside, once they have been released; two that he recounts in the book are a mugging, and a depressing encounter with a pimp and a hooker, both of whom he knew from the prison; Steinberg plays up to the pimp's ego before he realizes that by doing so he is encouraging the violent exploitation of the drug-addicted woman whom he knew and had friendly feelings towards. But there is also incredible sadness in these devastated lives; though there are no instances of the kind of violence usually depicted in Hollywood movies about prison life (another shallow prejudice broken by this book), there is certainly violence and turmoil, and many of the people Steinberg meets are dead before the book's last page.

What was most clear from reading this book is that Steinberg is an outstanding memoirist; he gives some wonderful background, on himself, his acquaintances within the prison, and prison itself, both the system and the specific institution he worked in. He has remarkable insight, leading me to pause frequently to consider a particular passage or idea; one of the most telling for me was the simple observation that American prison spending has multiplied even while spending on education, and on libraries, has fallen to almost nothing -- a trend that continues and accelerates in today's economy. And he is a great storyteller, able to bring the people and places to life. This was a great book, one that I think anyone would enjoy who had an interest in books or prison -- and I would wager that pretty much everyone has an interest in one or the other, if not both.

A small personal note: as a sometimes reluctant high school teacher, it was fascinating to me personally to read about Steinberg's experiences trying to teach a creative writing course as part of his librarian's duties, because the things he struggled with, and the mistakes that he made and the successes that he had, are very similar to my own experience. Not that I would compare high school students to criminals . . . but the reverse is actually a reasonable comparison; these criminals are in many ways like high school students, and it was very interesting to see.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
A surprisingly wonderful read! 23 Sep 2010
By SkyeNoir - Published on Amazon.com
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!
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Hopeful and Heartbreaking 17 Sep 2010
By amazonbuyer - Published on Amazon.com
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. And in a way I was right. He did not fail and he did not go back to prison. But, in life, sometimes there are options we don't plan for. I don't think Avi or Chudney anticipated the option that came Chudney's way either.

"Running the Books" is funny at times, but it doesn't elicit the fall off your seat type of laughter. You may laugh aloud a few times, but as soon as the laugh ends you'll catch yourself pondering pondering the darker side of what first made you laugh.

I gave "Running the Books" four stars because, although it is very well written, the writing style was a little dry for me. Even though I'm glad I read it I'm not going to pick up and read it again.

Note: I will say that I would have loved to read this with a book club, because I would have loved a deep discussion about why Jessica tore up the sketch of her face. I have some theories and I hate having no one to discuss them with.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
A Long Sentence 20 Sep 2010
By Karie Hoskins - Published on Amazon.com
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. He's one of the few that a reader might hold out hope that would leave prison and not return - and so the ending just sort of falls off - leaving many unanswered questions.

The cultural references he brings out about prisons and their role in society were well done, "Archeologists are occasionally unsure whether an unidentified solidly built ancient structure is a prison or whether it is a treasury building. The polar ends of a society's assets - its wealth and its criminals - are guarded with equal vehemence. Both are of supreme concern and utmost value."

For a reader, a librarian is a familiar occupation. The story of that occupation existing in such unfamiliar surroundings should be a compelling one. But because time in prison is measured in such a different way - without more detail on Avi and his life providing an overarching timeline - the reader is left feeling that every prison story has the same result, with just a different inmate.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Well done drama 14 Sep 2011
By TW Brown, Author, Editor, and Reviewer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Running The Books by Avi Steinberg is one of those titles that stands out as very different from what I am known for reading. No zombies or vampires here. However, it does take the reader inside prison...a concept I AM familiar with.

As somebody familiar with the prison environment, I'm always interested in the mythology that swirls about involving the realm of incarceration. Television--for whatever reason--likes to glamorize the worst of the worst. The tendency is to feature the outlandish wanna-be trannies and the violently anti-social.

Running With The Books is more than just a peek inside the Big House. It is about a man who makes parallel discoveries about his own life and the lives of the inmates he meets at his post as a prison librarian. It is amazing what a person can discover about his own life when watching others.

As somebody who knows, it was fascinating to see the mind of a "civilian" struggle with dealing face-to-face with inmates. There were moments while reading and I would find myself saying, "Avi, you are gonna get screwed." It was tough to read at times...realizing before the writer that he had committed a terrible mistake in an unforgiving environment.

I can say firsthand that there is a real desire among the incarcerated to be treated and thought of as regular men and women. However, it is one of the biggest mistakes that a civilian worker or CO can make inside the fence.

While it is one thing to help and invest time helping an inmate who is trying to better themself...it takes a lot of discipline to not cross a very blurry line. For every "honest" inmate trying to make positive changes in their lives, there are ten who will abuse any act of charity and kindness. That is a painful thing to say as somebody who has been locked up, but it is the truth.

I could go on forever about that subject, but this is a book review, not a dissertation for a psyche class on the mindset of the incarcerated. Running the Books is a fascinating read...for both sides: civilians and the incarcerated. It would be a brilliant book club selection and spark some fascinating dialog. (Especially if a prison book club were to read it. Yes, such things DO exist.)

If you know somebody who is locked up, send them the book. Otherwise, it is a wonderful and fascinating drama. Steinberg draws you in, not only to his story, but the multitude of stories that unfold around him.
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