Thursday, March 3, 2011

Running the Books

Wow, wow, wow! Wow! Wow, wow, wow!

Did I mention wow? I loved this book. And yes, as a librarian, you'd think I'd have a bias because this is about a prison librarian. Doesn't matter. This is just a great book.

The author, Avi Steinberg, is an interesting cross between successful and ne'er-do-well. He grew up in a moderately well-to-do family and graduated from Harvard. He's Jewish and was an absolute zealot in his childhood, studying scripture at all times. He lost his way in college, got involved with drugs a bit, wrote his senior thesis on Bugs Bunny, and found himself writing obituaries in his twenties, just sort of aimlessly going through life.

He attends a Jewish gathering where he is somewhat berated by his former mentor. Steinberg had recently seen an ad for a position as a prison librarian at a Boston prison. Motivated by his encounter with his mentor, he decides to apply and hopefully help those less fortunate than himself.

Steinberg gets the job and spends the next two and a half years in a sort of intriguing limbo. As a prison librarian, he is supposed to help the prisoners and provide them with books and resources to help them better themselves. He is, however, an employee and as such is supposed to keep himself detached from the inmates. The fine line he walks and the times he falls into one side or the other make up the majority of the book.

Steinberg's struggles is part of what makes the book so great. He is honest - with himself and with his readers. You can tell that there were certain inmates for whom he cared and wanted to see do well. But he knows also that these people are in prison for a reason and that most of them, if they get out, will return to a life of crime. Steinberg is even mugged at knifepoint by a former inmate at one point. The mugger recognizes Steinberg and comments that he still has books from the library. Their past together does not stop the mugger from taking what he wants.

This isn't the only encounter Steinberg has with former prisoners on "the outside". He runs into another inmate at a donut shop and sits and chats with him for a little bit. Suddenly, a former female prisoner comes out from the bathroom and the realization sets in that the male ex-con is now the woman's pimp.

It would take me a zillion edits for me to adequately express how I feel about this book. I like that Steinberg is not judgmental. There are some easy opportunities for him to generalize on race, economic and social status, etc. He does a good job at avoiding that and really is able to look at each individual as a unique person. He sees the good and bad and shares both sides with the reader.

Beyond that, the book is informative. You get an understanding of prisons from a very different standpoint. A prison librarian is in a special position. He or she does not have the authority of a guard. The librarian is usually a civilian employee. Because the librarian is often helping the prisoners, the guards aren't always on the side of the librarian. This can make for some awkward situations because, likewise, the librarian is not a prisoner and so the prisoners, too, are not always on the side of the librarian. It seemed like a tough job and ultimately, the stress of the job causes Steinberg to quit.

For me, one of the characteristics of an excellent work of non-fiction is the ability to make me want to learn more about something after I've read the book. Steinberg motivated me to want to learn more about a topic. There is a section where he delves into prisons and their history. That has prompted me to get a couple of books on prison architecture, which Steinberg gets into during the history section. It's not something I ever really though much about but Steinberg made me want to learn more.

The only bad thing I can say about this book is the ending isn't quite satisfying. It's neither good nor bad. I guess it felt a little unfinished to me. Outside of that, this is an absolutely phenomenal book and one I will probably read again down the road. It has passed Unbroken for my top book of 2011.

Oh, I almost forgot. Love the dustjacket on this book, too. A portrait of Steinberg done with library date due stamps. Too cool.

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