Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (Review)

Book cover for "Running the Books" by Avi Steinberg.Title: Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

Author: Avi Steinberg

Narrator: Dustin Rubin

Publication Year: 2011

Pages: 416 (audio length: 12 hours 2 minutes)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Source: Audiobook version purchased from

From the cover:

Avi Steinberg is stumped. After defecting from yeshiva to attend Harvard, he has nothing but a senior thesis on Bugs Bunny to show for himself. While his friends and classmates advance in the world, Steinberg remains stuck at a crossroads, his “romantic” existence as a freelance obituary writer no longer cutting it.

Seeking direction (and dental insurance) Steinberg takes a job running the library counter at a Boston prison. He is quickly drawn into the community of outcasts that forms among his bookshelves — an assortment of quirky regulars, including con men, pimps, minor prophets, even ghosts — all searching for the perfect book and a connection to the outside world. Steinberg recounts their daily dramas with heartbreak and humor in this one-of-a-kind memoir — a piercing exploration of prison culture and an entertaining tale of one young man’s earnest attempt to find his place in the world.

I picked up this audiobook on a whim. The cover art and the jacket text worked together to catch my attention, and my time as a teacher in inner-city schools helped out by making me attracted to “rough life” stories. It wasn’t Steinberg’s story so much that I was interested in, as much as the stories of the prison itself. Though this is ostensibly a memoir of Steinberg’s life during his time in prison, the “characters” of the inmates themselves rather stole the show for me.

The anecdotes contained in Running the Books are, by turns, both poignant and hilarious. I think it’s a mix of the stories of the people themselves, and of the way that Steinberg tells them, that made for such an amusing read. I really enjoyed myself during the book, even though it wasn’t necessarily the most intellectual read I’ve gone for in a while.

In the end, there really isn’t a big epiphany moment, and so as a memoir, the book is left a bit flat. If you’re just looking for some giggles, though, or a bit of insight into prison life – not too much, though, as the stories are generally restricted to what happens in the library – Running the Books might be a good choice for you. I know I enjoyed it, it just wasn’t quite as deep or thought-provoking as I was hoping it would be.


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