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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.