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Life Lessons From an Accidental Librarian

51IEkpx6IdL._SL160_Avi Steinberg’s intelligent and amusing new memoir Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (Nan A. Talese, 416pgs) recounts his two year stint working as a librarian at Boston’s Deer Island prison library. The poorly motivated, but highly educated Harvard grad found the job posted innocuously listed on Craigslist, and was hired even though he did not hold a degree in Library Science. Despite poor conditions, strict prison regulations and interacting with felons on a daily basis, Steinberg found the job oddly appealing. In addition to duties common to most librarians such as checking out books and helping patrons with research, the 20-something academic also had the more colorful duties of examining books for “kites”, prohibited messages traded between prisoners of the opposite sex, and keeping an eye out for any library materials that could potentially be fashioned into weapons. “I am living my (quixotic) dream: a book-slinger with a badge and a streetwise attitude, part bookworm, part badass,” quotes a review in USA TODAY.

During Steinberg’s tenure, the learning goes both ways. As he sets up educational programs like a writing group for women prisoners, he also becomes well versed in “pimp banter” under the instruction of an imprisoned pimp who frequents the library. Though a few encounters with released prisoners on the outside tarnish the novelty of the gansta lifestyle, as Steinberg realizes the severity of the prisoners’ crimes and the harsh realities of their lives. To counter balance the bleaker aspects of prison life, the writer interjects moments of levity by contrasting his family history with his experiences with the inmates. “…Running the Books presents his [Steinberg's] experiences working in the prison’s library as a fiendishly intricate moral puzzle, sad and scary, yes, but also — and often — very funny…The Suffolk County House of Correction succeeded at doing what Harvard could not: It showed Steinberg how to grow up,” concludes Laura Miller in a review posted on the Barnes and Noble review site.

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