On NPR this morning I heard an interview with Avi Steinberg about a book he just published titled Running the Books: the adventures of an accidental prison librarian. Mr. Steinberg, having graduated from college, wasn't sure what to do with himself. He answered an ad for a prison librarian at the Suffolk County (New York) House of Correction. His book tells about his experiences and the people he met. It's an interesting interview. I wonder what the more long-term, professional prison librarians who may read this blog or be directed here might think about it?
Here's an excerpt from Chapter One as offered on the NPR website:
Pimps make the best librarians. Psycho killers, the worst. Ditto con men. Gangsters, gunrunners, bank robbers — adept at crowd control, at collaborating with a small staff, at planning with deliberation and executing with contained fury — all possess the librarian's basic skill set. Scalpers and loan sharks certainly have a role to play. But even they lack that something, the je ne sais quoi, the elusive it. What would a pimp call it? Yes: the love.
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. But chances are you will eventually do a little — or perhaps, a lot — of prison time and you'll wander into one there. When you do, you'll encounter the sweetness and the light. You'll find books you've always needed, but never knew existed. Books like that indispensable hustler's tool, the rhyming dictionary. You'll discover and embrace, like long-lost relatives, entire new vocabularies. Anthropology and biology, philosophy and psychology, gender studies and musicology, art history and pharmacology, economics and poetry. French. The primordial slime. Lesbian bonobo chimps. Rousseau nibbling on sorbet with his Venetian hooker. The complete annotated record of animal striving.
And it's not just about books. In the joint, where business is slow, the library is The Spot. It's where you go to see and be seen. Among the stacks, you'll meet older colleagues who gather regularly to debate, to try out new material, to declaim, reminisce, network and match wits. You'll meet old timers working on their memoirs, upstarts writing the next great pimp screenplay.
You'll meet inmate librarians like Dice, who will tell you he stayed sane during two years in the hole at Walla Walla by memorizing a smuggled anthology of Shakespeare's plays. He'll prove it by reciting long passages by heart. Dice wears sunglasses and is an ideologue. He'll try to persuade you of the "virtues of vice." He'll tell you that a prison library "ain't a place to better yourself, it's a place to get better at getting worse." He'll bully you into reading Shelley's Frankenstein, and he'll bully you further into believing that it's "our story"— by which he means the story of pimps, a specialized class of men, a priesthood, who live according to the dictates of Nature.
He means it. Like many a pimp preoccupied by ancient questions, Dice takes the old books seriously. He approves of Emersonian self-reliance, and was scandalized that many American universities had ousted Shakespeare and the Classics from their curricula. He'd read about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
"You kidding me, man?" he'd said, folding the newspaper like a hassled commuter, brow arching over his shades. "Now I've heard it all. This country's going to hell."