Running the Books. Maybe this wasn't a good time for me, or maybe I tackled too much non-fiction in a row, but after working my way through only 266 pages of this 399-page memoir in a little over two months, I decided to call it quits. That, and I was out of renewals on it at the library.
Here's the thing, though: Avi Steinberg's accounts of his experience as a prison librarian (he dubs himself an "accidental" prison librarian) are really very captivating. And I really liked them. I just didn't really want to read 400 pages of them. I like long books, really, I do, but this one just didn't work out for me.
Despite my luke-warm feelings for the book as a whole, there were a few key lines I thought worth sharing. This is, after all, a book about the power of books (or at least the power of a collection of books), and the bookworm in me absolutely loved that:
On a pimp's encounter with the prison library: "When you do, you'll find the sweetness and the light. You'll find books you've always needed, but never knew existed. Books like that indispensable hustler's tool, the rhyming dictionary. You'll discover and embrace, like long-lost relatives, entire new vocabularies." (4)
On the definition of "correction" in "correctional facility: "On the back on one of his legal briefs, he scribbled: I like to right. Then he crossed it out, and rewrote it: I like to write. 'That's a correction,' he said, 'This here is a damn prison.'" (98)
On trying to find the perfect book for a prisoner: "Some books were close calls, but the one she sought remained elusive. Sometimes I wondered if maybe this book hadn't been written. I suggested to her that she write it--some people wrote, I said, because the book they'd most love to read, that they need to read, simply hadn't yet been written." (182)
On the temptations of censorship, and not so much: "Perhaps as a prison librarian, who served a vulnerable population, I had a responsibility not only to connect people to books but also to protect them from some as well. The idea bothered me: Who was I to decided what books another person should read? Censorship was not my job...I had women in my library who were borderline cases, cutters, suicide junkies, who might turn to Plath as an oracle of self-annihilation. Maybe I had a responsibility to shield them from [Ariel]. Or perhaps reading the poem could help in some way. Maybe I should teach the poem. Or maybe it wasn't my business, either way. None of this was obvious to me."
Steinberg's account of the inefficiencies of the prison system, the hierarchies and politics and bullying nature of it all, is at times engrossing. And his passion for what he does is enticing. If only the book could have been shorter. Or faster-paced. Or perhaps both. Or maybe it's just me. The stories I did read will certainly linger with me for some time--they're already doing that--I just wasn't compelled to actually read any further.
Thoughts from other readers:
What Red Read
Running the Books | Avi Steinberg | Nan A. Talese | 9780385529099 | $26.00 Hardcover | 416 pages | October 2010 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you