Book Review: Running the Books

Avi Steinberg. Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian. New York: Nan Talese/Doubleday, 2010. 416 pages.

Memoirs by youngish literary types who’ve yet to find their calling are a growth industry. I recently read Beth Raymer’s Lay the Favorite, about her pre-MFA stint as a sports bettor’s assistant, and Avi Steinberg’s tale of his post-Harvard adventure as a librarian in a Boston prison seems to be in the same genre. It’s more than another slacker-exploitation memoir, even though there are elements of that. In his job, Steinberg deals with people at their most desperate, most vicious, and most vulnerable. This makes for some good observational reportage, which is occasionally woven with a deeper commentary on the history of Boston’s prisons (the former Deer Island prison is always, it seems, a shadow).

On the surface, it’s a fish-out-of-water story. Steinberg decides to get a job as a prison librarian, a big change from writing a senior thesis about Bugs Bunny at Harvard. Not part of the prison guard brotherhood, and definitely not an inmate, he occupies as precarious place in the prison hierarchy. The most interesting stuff, however, isn’t what happens to Steinberg–it’s what he observes and what he realizes. A conversation about the difference between an archivist and a librarian becomes a springboard for a deeper meditation on what we keep, and what we throw away, framed by a trip to the prison archive.

Steinberg takes us inside the prison and–no surprise–it’s not a place that most of us would want to spend much time in. It’s interesting to see him harmonize the brutal world of the prison with his Harvard-taught sensibilities. The evolution of his relationship with the pimp C.C. Too Sweet is a touchstone for the kind of re-thinking that he shares with the reader, and a really true part of the narrative.

RUNNING THE BOOKS lacks, however, a definitive ending. Some of the prisoners have a close to their arc; our narrator does not. We learn in the epilogue that one day Steinberg “left the prison for the last time,” but the reader doesn’t know where he goes–certainly something that will color how we interpret his two years of prison librarianship. Was this just a chance for him to blow off some steam before grad school? Does he decide to get a library degree, with an eye towards returning to a prison library? It would help the reader to know.

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