I apparently love books with long subtitles, but the “accidental” nature of Avi Steinberg’s adventures are what made them seem relatable to me. Not that anyone really thinks they are going to grow up to work in a correctional facility, but Avi really stumbled upon it. He, a Harvard graduate, formerly observant Orthodox Jew, stumbles upon a Craigslist ad while taking a break from his job writing obituaries for the Boston Globe. And then without really processing why, he finds himself as a night shift prison librarian, even though he has no training in library science or prison work.
If you’re expecting a Hollywood tale of the nerdy teacher that inspires his prisoners to reform and in the end they all meet up on the outside and cry about how inspirational life is, then you will be sorely disappointed. But you’ll also be disappointed if you are looking for a moralizing tale about the danger of criminals. In fact if you’re looking for real cohesion of any kind, this really isn’t the book for you. Steinberg, can’t seem to make up his mind about the experience, his own motivations and the role of prison libraries in general.
I read this book with my book club, and almost everyone but me found this lack of cohesion very frustrating. At times so did I, but in retrospect I think it was refreshing to read his raw emotions about an incredibly complex experience. If he had come to the grand conclusions my fellow book club members seemed to crave, it would have cheapened the narrative. This book’s power is in its ambiguity. Steinberg is filled with questions about the power and limitations of narrative and words, and concerns about the way we treat criminals in this country. If he doesn’t seem to make up his mind about the issues he raises, maybe that’s because we have a culture can’t decide how we feel about punishment vs. rehabilitation. We, and I am completely including myself in this category, prefer to avoid thinking about this, and I get the impression that Steinberg did too before he found himself in this unusual job. By writing this book he forces his readers to confront this world we would rather avoid, but somehow he does this without preaching.