Posted in Adult Nonfiction

“Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian”

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian
Author: Avi Steinberg
Publisher: Anchor
Publication Date: October 2010
ISBN: 9780385529099

I came across this book at my library by accident, but I was excited by the title. My father is in prison, and I’m a librarian. The concept of prison libraries–and by extension, prison librarians–is one that I have thought about before. The idea of a book about this small segment of my profession was enthralling.

In short, I really wanted to like this book. I was hoping for a unique perspective, if not on prison society, then perhaps a more sympathetic view on prisoners. What I got was…a mess. A big, huge 400 page mess.

The biggest flaw with this book is that it attempts a nonlinear storyline–and fails miserably. Steinberg doesn’t seem to understand that even a nonlinear story has to have a structure. Instead he skips around at random, with absolutely no rhyme or reason that I could discern. I spent the entire book with absolutely no idea when any of the events in the book happened in relation to each other.

In addition to that, elements are introduced and dropped at random. He sprinkles symbolism around, only to have it come off as pretentious. There’s a few pages devoted to a hawk who watches over the prison yard. It is mentioned exactly once, then never again.

Steinberg himself is problematic as a narrator. He is a Harvard graduate who fell into the job of prison librarian, because he wasn’t really going anywhere with his life. The majority of his story reeks of privilege. It’s not just that he has a problem connecting with both inmates and staff. It’s hard to put my finger on it.

Perhaps it’s something about his general spinelessness. Beyond that, I think what bothers me is that Steinberg never moves beyond seeing inmates as criminals. That may sound harsh–after all, they are criminals. But even my limited exposure to the prison populace has shown me that a lot of the prisoners–especially the ones who would be apt to visit a library–are often people who simply made bad decisions. They are not inherently bad, or violent. But people in bad situations, who made poor decisions.

Now granted, I don’t know anything about the Boston community, or this particular prison populace. And I’m biased, simply because my window into this world is through someone I hold dear. It’s possible my perspective would be different if I were a staff worker. But I still have a hard time grasping that, for all his time spent around inmates, Steinberg never seems to really, truly see them as people.

This could actually be more a flaw in his writing that his perspective. After all, there are a few inmates that he talks about, who he seems to see in a more sympathetic light. Two, to be exact, and these he seems to view more in pity than anything. Pretty much every inmate is a thug or a bitch. Even the inmates who could be painted in a different light–the more old school mob inmates, for example–are shown to be mentoring the younger thugs. It’s an incredibly pessimistic view of the inmate population.

The only group that Steinberg offers any sort of insight into is the prison staff itself, which can be summed up in two words: apathetic and cruel. By and large, the prison staff are painted as being union shmucks who do the absolute minimum amount of work because they know they can’t be fired. I have no experience with unions–my state is a “Right to Work” state, so they pretty much don’t exist here. I won’t claim that my experiences with prison staff have been positive–mostly they’ve been frustrating. I can see how apathy could easily worm its way into this profession. It must be a very depressing place to work.

But again, there’s no explanation or insight given. We never see Steinberg really talk to his co-workers, and his insights into individuals is brief and inconsequential. It seems odd that guards would completely disregard the safety of a fellow co-worker, as they seem to do several times in the book. Most of the guards either don’t acknowledge Steinberg’s existance, pay him no respect, or flat out disregard his safety by playing cruel jokes. I can’t help but feel that his characterization of the staff is a little bit biased. This feels like a man who enjoys painting himself as the victim.

Steinberg mentions his thesis in Harvard being on Bugs Bunny and symbolism of the carrot in those cartoons. And this book feels like it was written by someone who would think that was a good idea. Basically, it is over-written and pretentious. You could easily cut 200 pages from this book and lose nothing. Steinberg waxes poetic about the symbolism behind prisons, their architecture, what they were meant to inspire for the inmates. It just starts to sound hollow after awhile.

This book feels more like a collection of journal entries–and not in a good way. It really seems like Steinberg had no direction, wrote things down as they occurred to him, threw in some pretentious prose, and called it a book.

This isn’t a book. It’s a first draft. With some heavy editing, it might could have been decent. But for the most part, it just felt like a giant waste of time.

Final rating: 1 star out of 5