I’m willing to read almost anything that focuses on books and libraries, written by a librarian, even if the setting is a prison and even if the librarian is a lapsed, formerly Orthodox Jewish, now agnostic, Harvard graduate. Mr. Steinberg is hip, cool, humble, lost, aimless, and somewhat annoying. Anyone who can afford to wander around taking crummy jobs whilst he wonders what to do with his life after graduating from HARVARD, is annoying.
Mr. Steinberg has a friend who becomes an anthropologist, studying leftover hippies somewhere in the Midwest or Colorado or something. Steinberg himself comes across as an anthropologist who is studying the tribal customs of that esoteric and mysterious tribal group, the American felons. He opens his library to pimps and prostitutes and con artists and drug dealers while pondering that age-old question, “What is the purpose of the library anyway?” To provide books, education, access to information? He is soon disabused of such a quaint notion by his prison clientele who generally use the library for more practical purposes: socialization, communication, and sometimes criminality. The criminal pursuits of these, well, criminals, shouldn’t be a complete surprise, but Mr. Steinberg seems to keep forgetting that he works inside a prison.
And, of course, there are the one or two inmates who are the exceptions that prove the rule:
Jessica, who comes to writing class to catch glimpses of her son, also incarcerated, through the window of the classroom. Her story ends tragically.
Chudney, whose ambition is to have his own cooking show called Thug Sizzle. His story also ends tragically.
I was never sure of the point of all of these stories of lost, violent, victimized, and tragic people, compiled with commentary by the narrator, who was sometimes lost, sometimes victimized, sometimes even a little bit violent in response to all of the violence around him. Maybe that was the point: all of our stories are tragic. We observe and tell each other’s tragic stories. But coming from a Harvard graduate, the moral of the story sounds a little hollow. Avi Steinberg is in prison (as a librarian) for a couple of years, but he doesn’t have to be there. He can get a real job, write a book, get a life. And eventually, by the end of the story, he does.
I first heard about this book on NPR. It’s an NPR-ish kind of book.