Just a few years out of Harvard, Avi Steinberg left his job writing obituaries for the Boston Globe and applied for a position as a prison librarian, even though he was not a librarian and had never been inside a prison. As he tells it in Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, he quickly learned that the job involved more than providing inmates with reading material and teaching creative writing classes. He was also a “prison boss,” in charge of an inmate work detail (the library detail was the cushiest). Another of his tasks was to intercept “kites,” letters the inmates routinely left inside books as a way to communicate, part of a rich subculture of literary and dramatic expression. Since the library was the one place in the prison that was least like prison, inmates felt comfortable there, and this gave Steiner a unique perspective. As much as his book is about the prison world and the people he encountered, it is also a disquisition on the library’s—any library’s—role. I recommended this to a friend of mine who once worked at library at the Cook County Jail in Chicago, I’m anxious to hear what she thinks of it.
399p. $26 from Nan Talese/Doubleday (978-0-385-52909-9)