Thursday, July 12, 2012

Our July Author: Avi Steinberg

This month we are discussing Avi Steinberg's Running the Books, a memoir about the adventures of a prison librarian. Although I had some concern about being 'trapped' in a book about prisons in July, a month when I usually try to propose travel books, I really enjoyed this journey.  We've got a few links to get things rolling, starting with his personal website:  Because the book contains quite a bit of the author's backstory, the usual interviews don't reveal a whole lot more than you learn in the book, but if you haven't read it yet and need a shortcut to prepare for the meeting, start here. I learned of the book from this NPR interview.  This profile from Harvard magazine is also a good introduction,
Any assumptions about the ease of book learning quickly disappeared. “As a prison librarian, you need to fight for the space, fight to purchase the books, fight to keep books on the shelves, fight for people to be able to come to the library, fight to keep people coming back to the library,” Steinberg says of his daily struggles. “It takes a lot of effort to bring books alive for people. To me, this was not obvious before.”
For those that have read the book and want more, Steinberg has been writing on a variety of (often amusing) subjects for publications like the Paris Review and The New Yorker. Check out this video if you want a preview of his next book. And you definitely want to check out this piece from Huffpo: Conversations with a Young Islamist in the Prison Library,
I can honestly say that if Akh did become a radical Islamist in prison it was despite the education he received in the prison library. It is just as likely that our conversations--simply the example of an open and respectful dialogue--planted a seed. It was, after all, a kind of tolerance that kept him coming back enthusiastically to the prison library and that kept our conversations honest and alive. In prison, and even in the balkanized world at large, this alone is a rare achievement.
Of course, we've covered some of this territory before. I was happy to see that Ted Conover's Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing got a nod from the author. We read the book a while back (along with two others by the author, making Conover Rights Readers' all-time favorite author) and recommend it if you enjoyed Running. You may be interested to learn that New Jack is still contraband in the New York prison system, but the author wrote recently about his first return visit to Sing Sing to see an inmate-produced play and he testifies to the role of theater in envisioning alternative roles as a part of rehabilitation. Huffpo also has a good interview with Conover. By the way, Ted Conover is not the only author we've read whose books have been banned behind bars. I linked to this once before, but I recommend this video of Toni Morrison and Angela Davis discussing the value of prison libraries and problems with censors.  The Austin Statesman has a fascinating report on books and authors banned in Texas prisons, including Edwidge Danticat. I also liked this article about a lawsuit filed by the always inspiring Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative on behalf of an Alabama inmate who was banned from reading the Pulitzer Prize winning book Slavery by Another Name

Take a look at this birds-eye view of the U.S. prison-industrial complex. There's a prison near you. If you've got some books you'd like to donate to a prison, this looks like a good place to start. If you want to learn more about prison issues, Slate has a round-up of some excellent investigative journalism on the subject. If you're in favor of more books, more dialog, better libraries, and better rehabilitation programs, you'll want to join the growing campaign to rethink the practice of solitary confinement.  Take action on behalf of the "Angola 3' here. See also the recent action against conditions at TAMMS Supermax prison in Illinois. More info/action from Solitary Watch. There's a lot of work to be done!
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