Books Behind Bars

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg

From the start the idea behind Avi Steinberg’s memoir of his time as librarian at Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston’s South Bay is suspect.  Admittedly, Steinberg is an aspiring writer short on inspiration; the memoir’s opening chapter refers to the author’s stunted first novel in order to emphasize the rut his life was then mired in.  Though it is only a snippet of information offered at the beginning of the book, this bit kept coming back to me as the memoir unfolded: did Steinberg take this unusual job solely as a means to fortify his literary aspirations?  While I lean toward a response of “yes” to this question, Steinberg ultimately achieves more than just a saleable book.  Despite its shortcomings Running the Books exposes a human side to the convict denizens of South Bay, revealed to the author in the simple setting of a library.

Though the stories of numerous inmates are touched upon in Running the Books, the lives of two in particular are most intriguing.  First there is Jessica, a thirty-something with a rough background who is surprised to discover that her long-abandoned and now teenaged son Chris is now incarcerated in the same prison as she.  After much painful deliberation, Jessica decides to contact her son via a letter and a portrait done by a fellow inmate.  Steinberg movingly completes her story, revealing a tough truth about convicts once they are released: not everyone emerges from the prison library improved like Malcolm X.

Next we meet Chudney, a career criminal with a newfound desire to become a celebrity chef.  Chudney uses the library to work toward his goal as he memorizes recipes, applies for a degree program and learns about the television industry.  Like Jessica, Chudney cannot escape the reality of life as an ex-con in the real world, once again teaching both author and reader that despite all of the prison Education Department’s better efforts hard work and commitment does not always reap rewards.

The stories of the inmates themselves is by far Running the Books‘s best attribute.  One of the weaker points of the memoir, however, is the lack of an arc in the author’s personal development.  Sure, the author grows from a meandering quarter-life screw-up to full fledged worker, complete with health insurance.  However, the author does not appear to experience any real personal growth.  However, he is not without opportunity.  Steinberg introduces the primary conflict in his life–his startling departure from the stringent Orthodox Judaism of his early life–to the reader and unfortunately does not ever resolve it.  Throughout the memoir the author refers to his former religious fervor, typically for comic affect.  However, when the opportunity to resolve his sudden departure from religion arises through his interactions with inmate Josh Schrieber, Steinberg does not take advantage and the reader is never privy to the reason.

While this and other issues plague the book (a lack of serious editing, for example), the memoir does have redeeming qualities that make its reading worthwhile.  I’m not sure if I will recommend this book to others, however, I will keep my eye out for Avi Steinberg and see what adventures he gets himself into next.


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