Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Running the Books: Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg

How can you not get drawn into a book that starts with, "Pimps make the best librarians.  Psycho killers, the worst.  Ditto con men.  Gangsters, gunrunners, bank robbers--adept at crowd control, at collaborating with a small staff, at planning with deliberation and executing with contained fury--all possess the librarian's basic skill set... But even they lack that something, the je ne said quoi, the elusive it.  What would a pimp call it?  Yes:  the love.  If you're a pimp, you've got love for the library.  Ad if you don't, it's probably because you haven't visited one. "   OK, maybe that intro doesn't grab you.  But as someone who works in an adult literacy program and who loves libraries, I was more than intrigued.

Running the Books is the story of a 20-something Harvard grad who finds himself working as a librarian for a couple of years at a Boston prison.  The back story of how he got there is interesting in itself but the real drama is in the library, where he works with his crew of inmate library staff and teaches creative writing classes.   Steinberg writes with a lot of humor.  ("I am living my (quixotic) dream:  a book-slinger with a badge and a streetwise attitude, part bookworm, part badass.  This identity has helped me tremendously at cocktail parties."  )  He also writes with a lot of compassion for the inmates who spend time in his library, and the book is ultimately the stories of a few of those inmates.

We learn about the ways that inmates communicate while in prison.  There are letters or notes left by an inmate in a library book--sometimes intended for a specific person, sometimes just as a means of expressing his or her thoughts.  These missives are known as "kites," an apt name in Steinberg's view as a kite is a "precious and precarious little creation, a physical creation fold up and sent out into the world for another person to see from afar."   Inmates are not permitted to communicate with one another in this way, though, so one of Steinberg's jobs was a daily search and destroy mission for these communiques.  Other librarians would punish kite writers who could be identified by suspending their library privileges.  Steinberg felt, though, that confiscation of the kite was punishment enough.  

We learn about unusual ways that inmates approach their classwork (which is, of course, voluntary).  Steinberg is hilarious as he writes about his first encounter with his creative writing class for female inmates.  "For a moment, I wondered if I'd accidentally walked into a neck scar convention.  I counted three.  The one who didn't have a neck scar had a neck tattoo.  The one who had neither sported a lewd cupcake-shaped hairdo and looked just plain mean."   His nicknames for these women were Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short.  At the end of one class, Steinberg wanted to give the women some homework (which one woman pointed out should be referred to as "cellwork")--a short story by Flannery O'Connor.  Solitary's response was to ask to see a picture of O'Connor before deciding whether to accept the assignment.  After taking a look at O'Connor, she agreed, saying that, "[O'Connor] looks kind of busted up, y'know?  She ain't too pretty.  I trust her."   (Solitary/Jessica becomes one of the inmates who Steinberg has a soft spot for, and he shares her sad story with his readers.)

We learn about ways the inmates use the resources provided by the library to make a bit of money.  Some used Microsoft Publisher to create greeting cards that other inmates would buy.  Others sold extra copies of crossword puzzles or word searches.  One particularly enterprising guy made some extra cash writing arrest warrants charging the recipient with committing "Love in the First Degree" or writing poems to be given to friends and family.  Here's an excerpt from "In Jail" by CC Too Sweet:

Being in Jail is lonely at night,
It is waiting for letters that no one will write.
It is depending on people
You thought were your friends,
Waiting for letters no one will send...

Running the Books is an interesting and thought provoking read.  I was drawn into the lives of  the prisoners just as Steinberg was, and I shared his feelings of hope that some would lead different lives once they had served their time.  Ultimately, though, this is not a book with a feel good ending.  Instead, the reader is forced to confront the reality of how difficult it is for ex-cons to get away from the world that landed them in prison, even if they have every intention of doing so.  It's always much easier to fall back into old patterns than to make real changes in your life, and it's virtually impossible for people who don't have the basic skills necessary to gain legitimate employment.  It makes me realize once again how important adult education is to our society.  And it makes me give all the more credit to adult learners who are determined to obtain their GEDs so that they can make better lives for themselves and their families.

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