running the books by avi steinberg

“we could trade places, get lifted in the staircases…”

“If you’re a pimp, you’ve got love for the library. And if you don’t, it’s probably because you haven’t visited one.” (3)

how can i resist this opening sentence? how?! even looking at it now for the first time since i read it in the summer, i’m smiling all over again. it came to me via the substitute for the coordinator for the program i’m about to stop volunteering for (just for the rest of the school year for now, but possibly after that, too). she is probably in new york now, as she “lost” the geographical locale to her up-until-now long-distance spouse. it just goes to show how folks that you only meet a few times (or even once) can make an impact on your (reading) life. i have since recommended this book to countless other people, and i know that angela actually even read it.

“It probably had something to do with my education. Harvard was a lovely assisted-living facility from which I’d emerged, like my classmates, stupider and more confident.” (36)

“It clarified something else, as well. That I’d begun to need these writing classes as much as the prisoners who were my students.” (198)

“The answer depressed me even more: why wouldn’t he invite me in? I’d played along with his act, respected him with that title, Pimpin’, and generally honoured his street persona. And now I was suddenly angry with him? Was I upset simply because I knew the girl? And if I didn’t, would it be okay?” (305)

“Poor women. Forced in prison to live vicariously through the love life of a librarian. You may be a homeless heroin addict, you may be doing one of those unfortunate 125-year sentences but surely this has got to be rock bottom.” (327)

and so- i have questions, right? how does someone who has no experience being a librarian and no experience with prison get hired as a prison librarian? where does subject position play into such a memoir? is orange the new black?

but i think he generally handles the meditation of the institution of prison/asylum and tells of the magic that is the prison library, well. he does a good job of dealing with how cyclical the entire business is.

“I recalled something an inmate had recently told me. As a laborer he had actually helped construct the current prison facility in 1990. He had laid down steel for the very building in which he was now imprisoned, the 3-Building.” (18)

“In the library, I saw a murderer suck her thumb. I broke up games of tag. And this was all reinforced by the structure of prison, where inmates have about as much control over their lives as children. And yet, almost all are parents.
Many inmates, especially women, felt comfortable in the library, one of the least prison-like spaces in the facility-and, whether I liked it or not, their need for child play would manifest itself on my watch. This was yet another unexpected use of the library space.” (136-7)

“She’d given birth alone at Boston City Hospital. She’d abandoned Chris alone in a church. And in prison, when she was so physically near to him, she may have finally realized, or perhaps decided, if she hadn’t already, that she would remain alone. Perhaps it was precisely this proximity, the sight from that window of my class, and the unavoidable challenge it presented her, that finally brought this grim truth to her. That possibility weighed on me.” (189-90)

“To her, Deer Island was a no-man’s land between the living and the dead.
Prison inhabits this realm. Jessica wasn’t the only ghost I’d encountered in prison. When the Boston Globe published its year-end list of homicides, I recognized seven names. I was only a degree or two removed from many of the others. Before I’d worked in prison, I hadn’t known a single person from that grim annual catalog-nor had I known so many people who died of drug overdoses. But in person I came into daily contact with a secret subset of the population: the marked. Those for whom prison was the last stop before the grave.” (215)

the writing class, the browsing library, the letters planted in books, the backwards hand-signing known as skywriting (the creation of a new mode of literacy and communication), and every possible relationship that can exist between the men and women kept so separate and unequal on the premises of this prison make for the fascinating account that is witnessed by this man.

“He knew that holiess of the book was in physically sharing it.” (280)

thank you.

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One thought on “running the books by avi steinberg

  1. almost doesn’t count?:

    “Jessica had told me she ‘wasn’t much of a reader’. But I could tell by the way she handled books that this wasn’t quite true. Perhaps she had been a reader once and quit. Or had lost the ability to focus. She claimed to have read the back cover of almost every book in the library, but rarely checked anything out. And never, so she said, actually enjoyed the occasional book she did end up reading. She didn’t come to the library to find a book, but to search for one. She was an infinite browser.” (181)

    “I liked the connotation of the word. It was a tricky metaphor for a letter, especially from prison, a precious and precarious little creation, a physical object-unlike most forms of letters today-folded up and sent into the world for another person to see from afar. Sometimes these letters were addressed to a specific person, sometimes they were left for whomever found them. Often, that person was me.” (80)

    “Prisons and cemetaries give the lie to utopian dreams. Deer Island was both.
    From its earliest days, it was recognized as a beautiful, cursed little plot of earth, nature’s asylum turned into man’s various prisons. This tension between /asylum/ and /prison/ would persist throughout its history. Was this place dedicated to sheltering its inhabitants from a dangerous world or to protecting the world from its dangerous inhabitants?
    In practice, it was a way station to oblivion, a purgatory for people of no status, no future. Deer Island was like the medieval prisons discovered in ruins of gates, bridges, tollbooths-the in-between spaces designed to lead somewhere but which themselves were nowhere at all. For generations, Boston’s outcasts lived in just such a limbo, permitted a grand view of a city in which they were to have no place.” (209)

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