Avi Steinberg was meant for greater things. If not a doctor or lawyer (per his family’s expectations), his time in yeshiva should at least have turned out a decent rabbi. But no; he left yeshiva for Harvard, then stalled out as a freelance obituary writer for the Boston Globe. In search of a new direction, and the security of a job with benefits, Steinberg answered an ad on Craigslist and began life anew as a librarian in a Boston prison.
Running the Books chronicles Steinberg’s years on the job, introducing a cast of inmates with whom his involvement went beyond mere book recommendations. He gathers culinary school applications for a gangster who plans to turn his life around by becoming a cooking show host (working title: “Thug Sizzle”). Initially befriending a charming pimp who is writing his memoirs, Steinberg is chilled when a cursory Google search reveals more about the man’s crimes than he was prepared to learn. The simple act of giving a cupcake to a depressed inmate opens up a meditation on the power dynamic between staff and prisoners, and the multiple ways that trying to treat a prisoner as an equal can backfire, most often at the staff member’s expense.
It’s ultimately a conflict with a prison officer that leads Steinberg to leave the job—had the officer pressed charges, they would have included assault with a Post-It note—though the accumulated stress had taken a significant toll. “I’d taken the job largely to get health insurance, but the truth was, I hadn’t needed health care until I took the job.”
Steinberg’s account may very well make you laugh and cry, but it will also have you re-evaluating items in your home for their potential as weapons. Running the Books is a powerful look at the prison system and a highly personal memoir in one.