Memoir / Part Bookworm, Part Badass

After opting out of both the yeshiva world and the rat race, Avi Steinberg discovers that some of the best stories in the prison library where he works don't appear on the shelves.

Running the Books

Library at Ayalon prison Alex Levac 2007
Alex Levac

The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg. Nan A. Talese/Random House, 416 pages, $26

C.C. Too Sweet, a pimp addicted to the play of words ("You are nonsensical while I, my brother, am ineffable, meaning: I cannot, and will not, be effed with" ), was using his time behind bars to write his memoirs. One day C.C. asked his friendly neighborhood prison librarian to give him some honest feedback on his first draft. Avi Steinberg's advice? Draw your female characters more fully.

Thirty-one-year-old first-time author - and memoirist of the non-pimp variety - Steinberg certainly practices what he preaches. In "Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian," the prostitutes are drawn fully. So are the pimps, rapists and con men. Steinberg, an occasional contributor to Haaretz Books, has apparently mastered the three steps of the art of prison lit: Step One: Be crazy-naive-desperate enough to take a job in a prison. Step Two: Make a connection with inmates. (Steinberg is that rare sort of soul who, despite his intellectual bent, is affable and empathic enough to mix it up with the "thugs," "dawgs" and "bruthas" of the prison on Boston's South Bay. ) Step Three: Draw, draw, draw.

Steinberg begins this delightfully insightful account of his two-year stint as librarian at "the Bay" (the Suffolk County House of Correction ) with an answer to the glaring question of how a nice Jewish boy (albeit a yeshiva dropout ) ended up in a place like this. According to the yearbook of Boston's modern Orthodox Maimonides School, Steinberg was slated to be a "shepherd in the Negev desert" - a prediction based, in part, on the way he would zealously rush off each summer to immerse himself in yeshiva study in the West Bank. After two years of post-high school yeshiva in Israel and New York, sans shepherding, Steinberg opted for Harvard, where he strayed from the Orthodox fold, wrote a senior thesis paper on Bugs Bunny ("in the context of wartime cinema as both a capitalist venue and aesthetic-ideological spectacle" ), and emerged feeling clueless - if not panic-stricken - about his future. In a segment worthy of Philip Roth, he describes attending a friend's Orthodox wedding at the peak of his identity crisis, and - guilty of two counts of heresy (no longer traditionally observant and not on track to becoming a lawyer, businessman or doctor ) - finding himself in the men's room face-to-face, or rather, side-by-side, with his former rabbi. The same owl-like rabbi who once helped Steinberg navigate the poetic currents of Isaiah now took a more prosaic tack, simply saying: "What happened to you?"

But by then Steinberg had already spotted an ad for a prison librarian on Craigslist. He figured: "It was either law school or prison. The decision was clear."

Fat Kat, Tu-Shay

How much can we readers expect to learn about prison life through the prism of its library? Answer: Volumes. First, we see who is hanging out there, in an atmosphere more reminiscent of your high school cafeteria than your high school library. There's Fat Kat, Ant, Dice, Shizz, Messiah, Tu-Shay - and of course, the five women of Steinberg's creative writing class whom he has dubbed Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish and Short. (Thomas Hobbes originally used these words in his "Leviathan" to describe life without a strong central sovereign - but it pretty much captures the political landscape of Steinberg's library as well, especially that day when the female inmates stage a dance party in the back of the library. )

Next, we note what Steinberg's patrons are reading. Fat Kat reads National Geographic. Pitts reads the Apocrypha. An anonymous prostitute imbibes Frida Kahlo reproductions. Jessica reads Sylvia Plath. ("Sylvia was into some pretty messed up shit, right? But that's why I love her." ) Josh, a Jewish inmate, wants a rabbinic text on mourning rituals. Many inmates, besides dabbling in legal research, read Stephen King, Dan Brown, books on astrology and dream interpretation, books on Princess Di, Robert Greene's "The 48 Laws of Power, and any of Oprah's book club selections." (A noteworthy aside: Are the editors of O Magazine's recent summer reading issue aware that, in advising readers to "ignore memoirs by people who have barely cracked their 30s," they may be inciting a riot at the Bay among Steinberg's fans? )

We also read what inmates are writing. Inmates housed in different units have different library hours, and so they write covert notes to each other - sometimes many pages long, and often between men and women - and hide them in library books. In prison culture, these are called "kites." When Steinberg would scan the shelves for contraband between group visits to the library, kites would drop from books like notes from the Western Wall. Steinberg considers these kites "some of the best reading on the library shelves." Like this one, part of a rap elegy: "A bitch like me can't be stuck on chuck, the boss is lost, for nada." Or this note from brother to sister after their mother's death: "See lil' sis, you know you still got me. Don't never forget." Or this, in the Tevya-as-gangsta genre: "Dear Messiah, I know things is tough but you gotta hang in there brutha." Or this heart-wrenching note, finished before it began: "Dear Mother, My life is."

Prisons can be dehumanizing. In part, that's the point. Humans live in packs, and when someone violates the code of the pack, he or she is sent off, out of sight and mind. And it takes someone with Steinberg's storytelling prowess and reflective powers, his heart and humor, to humanize a prison. "Running the Books" is a veritable orchard of juicy anecdotes - about Billy's funeral (the casket was empty ), Paul the Dog (he's a quadriplegic ), Officer Chuzzlewit's odiferous deed (he plants a fart bomb in the library ) and Steinberg's response (he angrily sticks a Post-It note onto the officer's forearm ), about the Hurricane Katrina Fund and Shakespeare Month (both misfires ), the lockdown that takes place while the staff are stuck in the sally port (Steinberg has a small breakdown while a guard croons "I Get No Kick Out Of You" ). All in a day's work when you are "part bookworm, part badass."

I was intrigued by the author's moral deliberations. Should he remove the Plath shelf, because it might in some measure encourage suicide among borderline women prisoners? He opts for non-censorship. After Googling C.C. Too Sweet and discovering he was arrested for kidnapping, raping and pimping a minor, he stops editing C.C.'s manuscript. In general, he wonders how he can become emotionally invested in certain inmates and still stay "on the side of the angels."

What left the deepest mark on me were Steinberg's portrayals - dare I say, loving portrayals - of several characters. Elia, nicknamed "Forty" for the 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor he'd routinely soak up in his pre-Bay days, shelved books - not the way anyone else did, but in a slow, methodical choreography, a "silent monastic repetition." On Elia's birthday Steinberg calls him to the back storage room and presents him with a chocolate cupcake - Elia's favorite non-liquid indulgence from "the outside." "The way he feasted on this treat was oddly intimate, almost sensual," writes Steinberg. And although he feels somewhat guilty for having broken staff rules, and even for standing there and voyeuristically watching Elia eat, Steinberg knows he's performed an act of kindness.

Chudney, a drug dealer and proud father of a spunky 5-year-old boy, has a dream: to host his own TV cooking show - tentatively called "Thug Sizzle." Chudney has put a lot of thought into how to reach his goal: He's created a flow chart of boxes and arrows, slanting from A to B to C, parole to halfway house to business degree to culinary school, all the way to television fame. Steinberg compiles information for Chudney on schools, business start-ups, tax forms, student loans (these are tricky for ex-cons ), TV personalities, even some recipes. All fired up, Chudney composes his first original recipe, which he considers tattooing on his chest.

Jessica, a.k.a. Solitary, who is doing time for prostitution, sits in Steinberg's creative writing class and stares out the window. When confronted by her teacher for not paying attention, she drops out, and Steinberg later learns Jessica's secret: Her 18-year-old son, whom she abandoned at age 2, has been hauled into the Bay, and his unit spends time in the yard during Steinberg's class. Steinberg helps arrange a portrait session - Brutish, with pencil and charcoals, sketching a "dolled-up" Jessica in the back of the library - so mom can give her son a gift.

It is the invisible thread stretching from inmates like Jessica and Chudney to the author and his own world of relationships that ultimately binds the narrative and gives "Running the Books" its emotional tautness. Jessica's estrangement from her son triggers in Steinberg associations with his maternal grandmother, a deeply embittered woman who fled pre-war Poland only, in Steinberg's phrase, to "blow death's secondhand smoke into our faces." Yet when Jessica is released from prison and soon after is found dead in an abandoned building (overdose? suicide? ), with the portrait for her son left undelivered, Steinberg finds a way to mourn both Jessica and his newly deceased grandmother. And when Chudney, too, meets a tragic end, his plan torn to tatters, Steinberg seeks to make a tikkun - a correction, as in some storybook House of Corrections: He makes a pilgrimage to Boston's Roxbury neighborhood and delivers to Chudney's bereaved mother some of her son's original writings.

Steinberg seems to understand that, on some level, we are all prisoners - often in prisons of our own making - and that emotional connections, the stories we inhabit together, have the power to liberate us.

Here is a final example to demonstrate just how good Steinberg is at "inhabiting" a story. (Compare and contrast, creative writing students. ) When I attended Harvard, some 20 years before Steinberg did, I was returning to my dorm one night after a meal at Hillel - which back then was on the outskirts of campus - when a few local teens jumped me from behind and stole my wallet. I never saw their faces, barely knew what hit me. When Steinberg was heading back to his Boston apartment one night, he was shoved from behind by a masked figure, who relieved him of his cash while wielding a knife. But in Steinberg's case, the man didn't leave. Instead, he looked at his victim and said: "You work at the Bay? Yeah, shit ... the book guy!" And as he fled into the park he called over his shoulder, laughing: "I still owe you guys two books ... "

Danny Paller is a writer/composer and producer of works for stage, television and multimedia.