Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Running the Books" by Avi Steinberg

This isn't the book Avi Steinberg intended to write. This isn't the job he was supposed to have. This is not the life he was prepared to live. So, who is the real Avi Steinberg? Come along on Mr. Steinberg's journey as he finds out just who he is and how the hell he got there.

Raised as an Orthodox Jew, Mr. Steinberg fully expected to become a Rabbi. Or at least a Cantor. At age 14 he immersed himself in Talmudic study. He even carried a copy of the Mishna wherever he went, opening it for study at every available opportunity, much to the amusement of even his Orthodox friends. His graduation book predicts his destination in life as "...a shepherd in the Negev desert."

After graduating from college he finds himself without work and very little desire to make a career at anything in particular. For awhile he takes a job as the obituary writer for the Boston Globe. This is when he sees the want ad for a job as a Prison Librarian in Boston's South Bay. He takes the test, gets the job and is plunged into a whole new world, for which he is mostly unprepared. As he prepares for his new job, he wryly notes that most of the Prophets had been criminals of one sort or another. Some had even served time. Two were wanted for murder. One was an exhibitionist.

Different criminals make for different kinds of librarians, and Mr. Steinberg contends that while pimps make the best, psycho killers are the worst. And while his approach to running the prison library is not quite in line with the rules, he does manage to make a difference. Along the way he gets to shepherd a colorful ensemble of individuals with names like Solitary, Brutish, Nasty, Poor and Short. And those are just the girls!

The prison library is a place of refuge for the prisoners, but a source of high anxiety for the staff. There are so many places, and ways, to hide notes, weapons and contraband in a library. It needs to be searched after each library "session." What do you do when you find the notes? A good prison librarian throws them away. What happens when one of the woman prisoners wants to sit near the window to look out onto the prison yard? Will he be savvy enough to figure out that she is only trying to get a glimpse of her son, who is a prisoner in the same facility as his mother? In short, what happens to a man who is suddenly confronted with people and decisions for which he may be unprepared?

In the case of Mr. Steinberg, he lets the books do the talking, while he uses his imagination to get the inmates truly interested in something beyond the walls which surround them. He initiates a "Photo Response Essay" program, in which he passes out pictures and has the inmates write about them. This is officially the "Creative Writing Class", but through this program the inmates learn to confront, and possibly even understand, themselves a bit more.

He introduces them to the photo journalism of Arthur "Weegee" Fellig, one of my all time favorite photograhers, and his collection of crime photos from 1930's New York City. These are raw photos of real life to which the inmates can relate and open up to. Here is a link to some of his extraordinary work;

In turn, he is introduced to things that he has never heard of. Take "skywriting", which is one of the more elaborate ways that prisoners use to communicate with one another. This involves looking skyward and tracing the letters of the message backwards so that the person on the ground can "read" the message. This type of communication was mostly done between the male convicts and the women prisoners who are housed in "The Tower." At any time during the night there were at least 5 such "conversations" taking place. One of Nasty's poems from the Creative Writing Class is a Haiku that deals with "skywriting."

cell in late winter
skywriting to skinny dude
darkness in the yard

With a deft hand, and keen imagination, Mr. Steinberg manages to make a difference in the lives of all those he comes into contact with. This surprises him as much as it does the inmates. Interwoven with his own story is that of his Orthodox friend Yoni, as he struggles to find his own place in the world.

After leaving the job at the prison, Mr. Steinberg bumps into one of his old
"students" from the prison at, you guessed it, the Public Library! Mr. Steinberg is going through some personal changes in his life's direction when he meets the former inmate, who wears an Arab Kufi on his head. The author hadn't known that he was a Muslim. They walk together, each one speaking of their current direction, or lack of one. During this conversation, the former inmate reminds Avi of one of the stories from the Mishna which he told the class in prison. It's the one about the fruit peddlers.

"A merchant bought a sack of prunes from his competitor. Opening the sack, he saw that the prunes had begun to rot. He went back to the seller and demanded his money back. The seller refused, and the two men went to the Rabbi to settle the dispute.

The Rabbi sat down at a table between the two men and emptied the sack in front of them. Then he put on his glasses, and without saying anything, he went to work, slowly and carefully tasting one prune after another, each time shaking his head.

After some time had passed, the Plaintiff spoke up, "So,Rabbi, what do you think?"

The Rabbi, who was about to consume the last of the prunes, looked up sharply and said, "Why are you fellows wasting my time? What do you think I am - A prune expert?"

Avi is amazed that the former inmate has remembered the story, which he always thought of as a story about a Rabbi who managed to eat some prunes for free. Not so, says the former inmate. "It's about a smart guy, okay, but he ain't smart in the right way, see? Just 'cause you think about something a lot don't mean you know anything about it. Maybe you went to Rabbi school, or you're an Iman, or whatnot, but that don't mean you know shit about no damn prunes."

This is an engaging and rewarding read. It will leave you a little bit humbled. And that's a good thing.

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