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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Undercover Thoughts

Thursday afternoon, last day in February: more snow sifting down. Sometimes the wind blows it at an angle, and sometimes it drifts lazily. Half an hour after David left this morning, his tire tracks no longer looked bright and new but like all the other tracks from earlier in the week. Unlike last year at this time, we have a pretty good, deep snow cover.

I’ve spent much of yesterday and today under warmer covers, woven and polar fleece throws, trying not to move too much to set up another round of coughing. It isn’t any horrible flu, just a bad cold, and I think I’m on the recovery side of the upside-down bell-shaped curve. Another upside has been plenty of reading time. Finally, after lo these many years, I’m getting around to reading Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. Before that, I devoured a fascinating memoir, the subject of the remainder of this post:

Avi grew up in an Orthodox family. The basketball team at his yeshiva high school was called the MCATS, as in Medical College Admission Test. Avi quit the MCATs at the age of fourteen to devote himself to the study of Torah and traveled to the West Bank during summer vacation to study more Torah.
Talmud Camp in the ancient Judean heartland, a.k.a. the Occupied Territories -- this was my paradise. Even my parents, who were religious, were concerned about my fervor.
No who knew Avi when he was growing up would have predicted he’d end up in prison.

He didn’t go directly from the schoolhouse to the Big House. For a long time he seemed to be going nowhere. As his classmates from Harvard were establishing themselves in careers as doctors and lawyers, getting married and having children, Avi drifted into part-time work as a free-lance obituary writer.  Even a similarly rudderless friend found this development astonishing, pointing out, “You’re not exactly living the dream.” Something had to change. He saw an ad for a job and decided to apply. He had no background in library science (or in social work) and until he saw the ad hadn’t known that such a job existed, but now he set his sights on the position: prison librarian. For him the choice was clear: “It was either law school or prison.”

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg
NY: Doubleday, 2010

I was offered a loaner copy of this book with only a minimal description of what it might contain, but I accepted the loan eagerly. Our country has the largest percentage of its population behind bars of any country in the world (Russia and Rwanda come in second and third), you don’t have to live in a huge urban area to know people who have been sent to prison, and yet the average white Joe or Jane Doe whose life has not yet been touched by this reality buys into the myth that American prisoners are a privileged class. If facts about prison violence are cited, Joe and Jane shrug and shake their heads. No, no, sorry! Anyone in prison is there for having broken the law, for having violated someone else’s rights? Why should they have any rights at all? That’s the argument I’ve heard in classrooms and around coffee tables. Loss of liberty is seen as insufficient punishment: the horrors of prison life are just what prisoners deserve!

Running the Books starts off as far as possible from being a retributive diatribe. Actually, the book begins with such broad strokes of humor that I kept wondering if the author would ever say anything important, not only for society but for himself, anything that he felt and believed deeply. Was it worth taking the time to read? Would I learn anything? Oh, well, the funny parts were funny. For example, would the author pass the drug test required for employment, or would his hair sample reveal that he had smoked marijuana a few weeks before? Then, no one ever gets his name right. ‘Avi’ is too unfamiliar for inmates and fellow staff. “’What is that, French?’” And so I read on, entertained and curious. I was an unsuspecting fish, and the author was just playing with me. In time he would set the hook, so gently and gradually that I barely noticed.

Naturally, this smart, naive and inexperienced young man who looked years younger than his actual age encountered situations for which he was unprepared. Of course, he made mistakes, as he is the first to admit. On the other hand, he and the more hardened staff members didn’t always agree on what constituted a mistake. Should he, for example, file reports on prisoners he sees leaving notes in books for other prisoners, i.e., using books as illegal mailboxes? He wants to believe both what people tell him and that he can be an agent of change in their lives. Is he in for a rude awakening. Well, yes and no. Mostly yes, but not always in the ways you might expect.

One of Avi’s duties in addition to running the library was teaching writing classes, one to men, another to women prisoners, and one of the women in his class wanted to do nothing but stare out the window. What would the appropriate authoritarian response be to make clear to this prisoner that he was in charge? Jessica was the woman who stared out the window, but I’m not going to tell you why or what Avi did about it or how Jessica’s story ends.

The prison librarian finds himself helping to edit one prisoner’s life story and guiding another inmate through applications to culinary school, and in fact there are as many stories in this book as there are characters. The book is divided into only two parts, Part I and Part II, with only two “chapters” in each part, and these divisions are pretty much irrelevant. Important section divisions begin anywhere on a page, in boldface type, and are signaled by headings such as Job Training, Blueberry Muffin Day, Stopping the Waves, or some other, sometimes surprising title. And so this book contains, besides stories of individual men and women, what I called the other day “essay islands.” The first that stopped me in my tracks was a section headed Prison Doors: A Brief History. It begins like this: “The prison occupies a former dump and incinerator site.” On the following page we read --
It turned out that the common metaphor of prison as a warehouse was actually not a metaphor. South Bay was a warehouse district. There were auto-body shops, mason depots, a methadone clinic, sundry bombed-out buildings, the headquarters of the Boston Fire Department, the Transit Police. But mostly just streets of warehouses and a chorus of beeping, produced by the backing up of delivery trucks. Sometimes it felt as though the entire place was inching backwards.  
And in a way, it was. South Bay is rumored to be sinking into the sea. Although a landmass for generations – having been filled in a century ago – seagulls still swarmed the skies. Perhaps they sensed the rising tide.  
Signs of the End were everywhere.
Steinberg stands in front of the prison one day to study its architecture and compare it to what he has read of the faces of prisons at various times in American history. He sees nothing either uplifting or judgmental. “The structure,” he reports, “repelled all imagination. It was two cereal boxes.” Still less was there any of the symbolism that Nathaniel Hawthorne described in the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter. Has the modern prison abolished dread? Hardly. The true prison door today is found “safely out of public sight,” inside of the building,” and is far gloomier than Hawthorne’s old oak door surrounded by roses could ever have been. Prison Windows is another essay island, standing out nearly self-contained from the text that precedes and follows, and there are others -- yet they draw power, too, from the personal stories of the surrounding text. Without the stories, a reader might be able to shrug at the essays and dismiss them. The essay island titled Delivered, the opening section of Chapter 4, begins with the brief sentence, “There are various reasons to cry in prison” and ends with the prison librarian “initiated into an ancient club: those who cry alone in the darkness of prison.”

“What’s it about?” That is a question often asked when anyone recommends a book. In this case, the subtitle gives big clue clue, but what else can be said to someone wanting a capsule summary? I can say the following, without giving away any of the book’s specifics: Avi learns (and shows) that people inside prisons and people outside are not that different, after all, if you take away the uniforms and rules; he also learns, long after she had died, that his horrible, negative grandmother had been, like many of his inmate library patrons, a prisoner of loneliness; and he concludes, contrary to his predecessors' posted sign reading BOOKS ARE NOT MAILBOXES, that books indeed are mailboxes and that this is one of the functions of a library--to carry messages through space and across time.

This is a book review and a recommendation. Running the Books is now available in paperback for $16 and is in stock at Dog Ears Books.


Dawn said...

Somehow I missed that you were not feeling well! Glad you're feeling a little better. A nice day under blankets helps I'm sure. The memoir sounds really fascinating.

P. J. Grath said...

I'm not kidding when I say this book hooked me. I keep going back even now that I've finished it and reading parts over again. I think it's important, too. Any book that gives readers any idea what life in prison is like is an important book, so here's a reminder of another one, in case you missed this old 2009 post: