Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Pimps make the best librarians

I can't remember what made me want to read Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg. I feel like someone recently talked about it on their blog, but I can't remember. I do know that I was up in Boston for a weekend and made several trips to the Brookline Booksmith, my former local indie bookstore. This book was sitting on one of those "these books are awesome, why aren't you reading them" tables. The cover drew me in and I realized I recognized the title. Plus I think it was some combination of books, prison, library and Boston that made me decide I need to read this.

This is a memoir of Avi Steinberg, former yeshiva student and recent Harvard grad, looking for something to do that will get him dental insurance. He sees a job opening for a librarian and writing teacher at a Boston prison and decides to go for it. His stories of dealing with the various prison characters are hilarious and heartbreaking and sometimes terrifying, like when he gets mugged by a former library patron who makes off with his wallet and tells him he still has 2 books out.

My worry with a memoir is that the story will be a series of of events that may not add up to a whole. I was very happy that this doesn't fall into that trap. The book is still a series of events but they add up to something. It doesn't feel like Avi is just sharing diary entries with what happened each day. He talks about trying to gain respect and maintain control in the library, dealing with the "kites" the prisoners send (letters left for prisoners in books), and trying to help the prisoners when he can.

One of my favorite stories from the book is about Avi helping an incarcerated pimp named C.C. Too Sweet write his own memoirs. Avi is moved by his stories about his childhood and is pulled into Too Sweet's insistence that pimping is an art form. Avi had even convinced Too Sweet to expand the stories of the women Too Sweet worked with, to make them people instead of characters. But he's removed from the reality of what Too Sweet actually does until one day he sees a former prisoner and current pimp out in the real world. It's easy to be pulled into Too Sweet's stories without really comprehending exactly what it means to be a pimp and this reality is brought to the forefront for both Avi and the reader.

I enjoyed this book. It's great for book lovers because there is a lot about the power of books, the importance of books and the beauty of books. It's not just about the books though, it's about the outcasts that populate the prison and what they're looking for when they go to the library.

Update! There is a very high chance I first heard about this book from Lisa at bibliophiliac and I want to give credit. And even if this isn't the case, check out her excellent review!

Title quote from page 3

Steinberg, Avi. Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian. Anchor Books, 2010.