A friend sold me on this book by quoting the opening line: “Pimps make the best librarians.” The paragraph continues: “Psycho killers, the worst. Ditto con men.” What makes pimps stand out, according to Avi Steinberg, is “the love.” He then shifts into second person, making the reader complicit: “If you’re a pimp, you’ve got love for the library… You’ll find books you’ve always needed, but never knew existed. Books like that indispensable hustler’s tool, the rhyming dictionary.” Aha — of course I would need that if I were a pimp.
Running the Books is Steinberg’s account of his two years as a librarian at Boston’s South Bay House of Correction. Steinberg, raised as an Orthodox Jew, a Harvard graduate whose previous job had been writing obituaries for the Boston Globe, stumbled into his prison gig at a low point in his life. As Running the Books makes clear, the job did not exactly solve all of his problems. But it did shed a bright light on a number of issues, some of which remain — as they should — baffling. For instance, is there room for compassion in a carceral environment? If there is, how can it be expressed? How about this: what is the role of the written word in a prison? What is the role of narrative? What is the role of a library? And what are we to learn, if anything, from the tragic arcs of some of these characters’ lives? Steinberg, who spent his early teenage years in devout study of the Talmud (and who wrote his Harvard B.A. thesis on Bugs Bunny, thank you) can deploy a lot of fancy abstract thinking but doesn’t make the error of trying to solve this one for us.
He’s a good writer and a funny one, and his time in the library certainly gave him plenty of material. One great riff comes when he names the students in his creative writing class after Thomas Hobbes’ classic description of life in man’s natural condition: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Sometimes he himself — weedy, mild-mannered — is the punch line of the joke. “‘Listen,'” his buddy Fat Kat tells him one day. “‘You might think you’re a badass. You are not a badass, my friend. You’re at best, a punk. So why don’t you just stick to being a librarian?”
I have to admit that I’m still a little bit confused by Running the Books. The structure is anecdotal and if it’s organized around themes, I didn’t grasp them. Maybe I need firmer guidance than most readers. I also sometimes felt that Steinberg was groping for narrative tension. His relationships with certain inmates provide episodes, but these relationships are going to be strained and fragmented at best. Sometimes Steinberg’s efforts to help an inmate are frustrated or cut short. Or they misfire. Or he misunderstands the context. Or misjudges the moral weight of his actions, as when he bends the library rules for a pimp. He rather enjoys this complicity, until an encounter outside the prison reminds him just what exactly it is that pimps do. Not, actually, a matter to take lightly.
But in a weird way, some merit of Running the Books resides in the errors it avoids. It’s not sentimental, it’s not voyeuristic, it’s not smug or preachy. Possibly, given the great wretched spectacle of American’s prison system, skirting those flaws is sufficient achievement.