Memoir from prison librarian is funny, poignant

“Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian” (Random House, $26), by Avi Steinberg: In an era of Amazon, iPads and Kindles, it’s easy to forget the classic lure of the library. To the indoctrinated, it’s not just the books — their musty covers, gilded pages and Dewey Decimal System-ized order. It’s about creativity. It’s about community. It’s about escape.

In Avi Steinberg’s memoir, “Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian,” we learn most about the latter as the Harvard graduate and one-time obituary writer takes a job teaching writing and supervising the library in a Boston prison. There we learn not only about the clientele — the pimps, the gangbangers and the strippers — but also about the correctional officers and a bit about the U.S. industrialized prison system itself.

Steinberg’s writing is funny, poignant and accessible. He’s the guy you want in front of the campfire because he knows how to tell a good story. And here he has some great ones to tell — the former hookers, strippers and dancers forced to live their love lives vicariously through a librarian; the gangster who invents recipes using ingredients he’s never tasted and dreams of hosting his own cooking show called “Thug Sizzle”; and the hustler who writes poems for cash.

Steinberg, a lapsed Orthodox Jew and one of the least likely personalities you’d expect to find in a prison, and the rest of characters pop off the pages — not because they’re stereotypical or overly sentimental, but because they’re real. Some get saved, others get even more lost, but Steinberg brings them all equally to life — for better or worse.

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