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>Running the Books

January 31, 2011

>Our friend Miriam says it’s hard to find books that Ron and I haven’t read, so she sent us Running the Books by Avi Steinberg for Christmas. It was not a book I’d heard of, and definitely not one I would have picked up on my own, but it dovetailed with other things I was doing and reading.

I’m looking for more work; I spent the fall making the case that the local college should hire me full-time, or at least more than my current 1/6 time. That could be a very long-term project, so in the last few weeks I started looking around for other work I could do without having to commute. And then, of course, the high school finally put through enough of the paperwork that the director decided we could do an abbreviated musical this spring, so we’re doing a little 90-minute, one set, contemporary costume, 7 song show entitled Olivia Twist. For coordinating parent volunteers (ticket selling, set construction etc.), listing and collecting props, writing synopses, ads, cast biographies, and the program, decorating the set, and being there for auditions, rehearsals, and performances, I will earn almost exactly as much as I make in a month at the 1/6 time job.

So as I’m still trying to decide what to be when I grow up, I started reading two books simultaneously. One made me cry with frustration and longing, about being the kind of idealized adjunct professor whose students become a sort of extended family–more on that later–and the other told me about what it’s like to be a prison librarian. Well, I’ve tried the former, and as I read Running the Books, I imagined being the latter.

But I learned something from this book–I’m not a librarian at heart; I’m an archivist. At one point, a fellow prison librarian tells the author that he is, too:
“He told me that archivists and librarians were opposite personas. True librarians are unsentimental. They’re pragmatic, concerned with the newest, cleanest, most popular books. Archivists, on the other hand, are only peripherally interested in what other people like, and much prefer the rare to the useful.
‘They like everything,’ he said, ‘gum wrappers as much as books.’ He said this with a hint of disdain.
‘Librarians like throwing away garbage to make space, but archivists,’ he said, ‘they’re too crazy to throw anything out.’
I think the line about gum wrappers is a bit much, but they are paper, and I do have to make myself throw away letters sometimes; there’s a box of letters written by my grandparents to each other in my basement.

Books in a prison library are often used as delivery systems for notes, or “kites,” and Steinberg saved some of the ones he found, saying that “there was some part of me that thought, Who knows, maybe these letters will be important to someone in the future? I majored in history and literature, and wrote newspaper obituaries. I spent many hours looking at letters and artifacts that some oddball had decided not to throw out. There is no history, no memory, without this.”

The stories Steinberg tells about his experiences working in a prison range from the kind-of-heartwarming to the horrifying. When he tells about being mugged by a former inmate, he notes that “if this were an inspirational prison movie, this would be the point at which he would have given the money back to me, cried, and thanked me for believing in him….But that’s not what happened.” He finds that “a surprising number of inmates were the emotional age of children….it was almost the norm….I recognized a childlike earnestness is the inmate, aged thirty-six, who pleaded with me to give him tape so that he could stick his name, which he had printed out in a colorful, calligraphic font, to his school folder.” He watches both male and female inmates hold baby dolls. He says that “In the library, I saw a murderer suck her thumb.”

Although Avi Steinberg–a short, slight, intensely Jewish urbanite–couldn’t be less like me, he manages to make me and any other bookish reader identify with him; one of the ways he does it is with intensely personal observations and the other is with finely-tuned humor. At one point, talking about how a prisoner reminds him of his grandmother, he observes that “the talking cure doesn’t do much for me. I tend more toward the brooding cure.”

Occasionally–very occasionally–I reacted to the meaning he invested in his job with the same kind of skepticism with which I react to anyone who is over-reaching for meaning. For instance, I couldn’t quite buy the depth of meaning he invested in a note that read:
“Dear Mother,
My life is”
He claims that it is “a life indefinite, unarticulated, open-ended. An unfinished, unsent letter. An infinity of white space.”
Yeah, okay, but as he points out in other places, it could just be a letter written by a brutish person who got interrupted.

Like all good teachers, Steinberg learns from his students, and in his story about one named Jessica, he displays a sensitivity and earnestness that shows better than he can tell how out-of-place he was for a short while as an employee of the prison system. Another story that shows the kind of dilemma a prison librarian can find himself in is one about an inmate writing a biography who asks Steinberg for help, and how he has to weigh the risks:
“I kept imagining the tabloid headline, Outraged Parents: Our Tax Dollars Helped Our Teenaged Daughter’s Rapist Write His Tell-All! The article would be accompanied by my prison ID photo, with my crew cut and my bewildered grin, bearing the caption ‘I thought it was a good read.’ These paranoid scenarios kept me up at night.”

Sometimes you want to find a way to earn a living that will make a change in the way you live–and often when you feel that way, it’s good to read a book that tells you all about that way of life so you don’t have to experience its excitement and pitfalls on your own.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2011 1:52 pm

    >AH, don't throw out your grandparents letters! Yes, I'm an archivist. Those letters tell a story and I can't stand to see a story destroyed. I've been able to rid my life of a lot of detritus (sp?) in the last few years but I can't get rid of handwritten letters or handmade Xmas cards. Interesting book. That's a job I wouldn't want. I'm beginning to get antsy in my current job and wondering what else is out there but so far the answer is: Nothing.

  2. January 31, 2011 2:16 pm

    >We should compare draws I think. I've got a folder of letters from childhood penpals that I can't throw away depsite them not being so interesting. I love your description of this book, which sounds fascinating (and scary, can't believe at one young point I thought I'd like to be a prison psychiatrist). The 'Dear Mother' letter sounds like the kind of thing ripe for creation, we can create a story around it and it comes to mean more than it maybe ever was intended to. Kind of the way we create heros and myths sometimes and less information just means more room to create what we want to see. Did it remind you of a 'Queen' song too?

  3. January 31, 2011 2:36 pm

    >FreshHell, I have no intention of throwing them out, despite the fact that they once got a little damp from a basement flood. The ones I throw out are usually thank you notes and old birthday cards from friends and relatives, but I have to make myself pitch them!Jodie, Bohemian Rhapsody with "mama just killed a man"? I'm laughing because that could be the mental connection I made when I advertised this post on FB as "career moves: another one bites the dust"!It is a fascinating and scary book. Since a friend once described me as having "no guile" I know it's probably an environment I wouldn't do well in. I would miss things; in my usual sphere that's not a matter of life and death.

  4. January 31, 2011 6:03 pm

    >I loved this book! I'm definitely a true librarian at heart and the archivists drive me batty! His book is terrific.

  5. January 31, 2011 7:08 pm

    >I keep forgetting that I want to read this book — he is also, maybe not surprisingly, friends with the woman who wrote The Possessed. And naturally, I think the distinction between archivists and librarians is a bit more complicated, but I would agree that they are crazy. Anyway —

  6. February 1, 2011 12:49 am

    >I wish I had a load of letters my grandparents wrote each other! I'd love to have something like that. My mother always tells me this story about how her mother talked her into throwing away all the letters her ex-boyfriend ever wrote her, and she never stopped regretting it. I love letters. I always save them.

  7. February 1, 2011 2:47 am

    >Marie, I know, the less dignified term for "archivist" is "hoarder"!ReadersGuide, I did notice that Elif gives him a nice blurb, prominently featured on his web page.Jenny, I used to have a collection of letters sent to me by my first boyfriend– carefully inserted into empty instant flavored oatmeal packets–but I couldn't find them during my forays through the basement in the last few years before my parents moved and sold the house. My parents are much more like librarians than archivists about books and papers. (But my mother's shoe collection went back to the late 1940s.)

  8. February 1, 2011 6:39 am

    >I love that! So, librarians make the world an easier place to find the things the most people want most often, and archivists make the world more interesting for posterity.I think most of the librarian characters in fiction are actually archivists by that definition.Fiction writers are archivists. They preserve the gum wrappers of the mind. A novel like a well-run public library would be . . . well, I can't think of a novel like that, but I wouldn't like it.

  9. February 1, 2011 2:36 pm

    >SO glad you're not contemplating taking a job in a prison. We really would worry about you.

  10. February 1, 2011 3:17 pm

    >Trapunto, that's a good way to put it–that librarians try to make it easier to find the things the most people want most often. I think you're right that most good librarians are not like the bespectacled, bun-headed hoarders of printed material in fiction! And yeah, I wouldn't like that kind of novel either.PAJ, can you imagine the face of the friend who told me I had no guile if I told him I was even contemplating such a thing?!

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