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Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarianby Avi Steinberg
Synopses & Reviews
In the tradition of A. J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically, a hilarious immersion memoir of one lapsed Orthodox Jew’s stint as a prison librarian.
A few years after graduating from Harvard, Avi Steinberg is stumped. While his friends are getting married and getting promoted, Steinberg has grown dissatisfied with the insularities of his upbringing, from the Orthodox Jewish sense of “chosenness” to his Ivy League education, its secular counterpart. Anxious to shed the ideologies of his background, and seeking direction, Steinberg takes a job as a librarian in a tough Boston prison. He’s about as far from his comfort zone as he can get.
Steinberg’s new quarters attract a crowd of quirky regulars seeking connection with the outside world, among them an amiable pimp who solicits Steinberg’s help in writing his memoir, an industrious gangster who dreams of hosting a cooking show titled Thug Sizzle, a tyrannical officer who instigates a major altercation over a Post-it note, and an ex-stripper who asks Steinberg to orchestrate a reunion with her estranged son when he unexpectedly shows up behind bars. Over time, Steinberg creates a unique community for these outcasts and forms unlikely personal relationships, which he recounts with heartbreak and humor. His experience leads him to a deeper sense of purpose and turns him into the person that a yeshiva never could.
Running the Books is a trenchant exploration of prison culture and a refreshingly entertaining tale of one young man’s earnest attempt to find his place in the world.
"In this captivating memoir, Steinberg, a Harvard grad and struggling obituary writer, spends two years as a librarian and writing instructor at a Boston prison that's an irrepressibly literary place. True, his patrons turn books into weapons (and one robs him while out on parole), but he's beguiled by the rough poetry of inmate essays and 'kites'--contraband notes secreted in library books--and entranced by the 'skywriting' with which they semaphore messages letter-by-letter across the courtyard. And there's always an informal colloquium of prostitutes, thieves, and drug dealers convened at the checkout desk, discussing everything from Steinberg's love life to the 'gangsta' subculture of Hasidic Jews. Gradually, the prison pulls him in and undermines his bemused neutrality. He helps a forlorn female prisoner communicate with her inmate son, develops a dangerous beef with a guard, and finds himself collaborating on the memoir of a charismatic pimp whose seductive rap disguises a nasty rap sheet; he has to choose sides, make queasy compromises, and decide between rules and loyalty. Steinberg writes a stylish prose that blends deadpan wit with an acute moral seriousness. The result is a fine portrait of prison life and the thwarted humanity that courses through it. (Oct. 26)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
Seeking direction--and dental insurance--Steinberg takes a job as a librarian in a tough Boston prison. Over time, Steinberg is drawn into the accidental community of outcasts that has formed among his bookshelves--a drama he recounts with heartbreak and humor.
Avi Steinberg is stumped. After defecting from yeshiva to Harvard, he has only a senior thesis essay on Bugs Bunny to show for his effort. While his friends and classmates advance in the world, he remains stuck at a crossroads, unable to meet the lofty expectations of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. And his romantic existence as a freelance obituary writer just isn’t cutting it. Seeking direction—and dental insurance—Steinberg takes a job as a librarian in a tough Boston prison.
The prison library counter, his new post, attracts con men, minor prophets, ghosts, and an assortment of quirky regulars searching for the perfect book and a connection to the outside world. There’s an anxious pimp who solicits Steinberg’s help in writing a memoir. A passionate gangster who dreams of hosting a cooking show titled Thug Sizzle. A disgruntled officer who instigates a major feud over a Post-it note. A doomed ex-stripper who asks Steinberg to orchestrate a reunion with her estranged son, himself an inmate. Over time, Steinberg is drawn into the accidental community of outcasts that has formed among his bookshelves — a drama he recounts with heartbreak and humor. But when the struggles of the prison library — between life and death, love and loyalty — become personal, Steinberg is forced to take sides.
Running the Books is a trenchant exploration of prison culture and an entertaining tale of one young man’s earnest attempt to find his place in the world while trying not to get fired in the process.
About the Author
AVI STEINBERG is thirty years old. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the New York Review of Books, the Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, Philadelphia Weekly, Salon, Nextbook, and the Forward. He currently lives in Jerusalem.
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