A San Francisco prisoner wanted to read werewolf erotica so badly that he took it to state court. The case has brought up problems with prison censorship and calls to mind Avi Steinberg’s memoir, Running the Books: Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (here’s our review.)
There are many ways to measure a year, but the reader is likely to measure it in books. There was the novel that felt as fresh and full of promise as the new year in January, the memoir read on the bus to and from work through the grey days of March, the creased paperback fished from a pocket in the park in May, the stacks of books thumbed through and sandy-paged, passed around at the beach in August, the old favorite read by light coming in the window in October, and the many books in between. And when we each look back at our own years in reading, we are almost sure to find that ours was exactly like no other reader’s.
The end of another year brings the usual frothy and arbitrary accounting of the “best” this and the “most” that. But might it also be an opportunity to look back, reflect, and share? We hope so, and so, for a seventh year, The Millions has reached out to some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2011 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2010 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Fiona Maazel, author of Last Last Chance.
John Banville, author of The Sea, The Infinities, and many other books.
Al Jaffee, legendary Mad Magazine writer and cartoonist.
Lionel Shriver, author of So Much for That and several other books.
Emma Rathbone, author of The Patterns of Paper Monsters.
Joshua Cohen, author of Witz.
Jonathan Dee, author of The Privileges and several other books.
Jennifer Gilmore, author of Something Red.
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries.
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future.
Bill Morris, Millions staff writer and author of Motor City.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Emma Donoghue, author of Room and several other books.
Margaret Atwood, author of Year of the Flood and many other books.
Lynne Tillman, author of American Genius and several other books.
Hamilton Leithauser, of The Walkmen.
Padgett Powell, author of The Interrogative Mood and other books.
Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall and other books.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists.
Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and several other books.
Philip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag and several other books.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask and other books.
Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge.
Joseph McElroy, author of Women and Men and several other books.
Alexander Theroux, author of Laura Warholic and several other books.
Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.
Emily St. John Mandel, Millions staff writer and author of Last Night In Montreal and The Singer’s Gun.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Edan Lepucki, Millions staff writer, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Ed Champion, proprietor of edrants.com and The Bat Segundo Show.
Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com.
Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review.
Tom McCarthy, author of C and Remainder.
Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men and founding editor of n+1.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There and co-founder of The Morning News.
Paul Harding, author of Tinkers.
Sigrid Nunez, author of Salvation City and several other books.
Matt Weiland, editor of The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup and State by State.
Allegra Goodman, author of The Cookbook Collector and several other books.
Adam Levin, author of The Instructions and several other books.
Michael Cunningham, author of By Nightfall, The Hours and several other books.
Sam Anderson, book critic, New York magazine.
Richard Nash, of Cursor and Red Lemonade.
Seth Mnookin, author of Hard News and The Panic Virus.
Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age.
Marisa Silver, author of The God of War and other books.
David Gutowski, of Largehearted Boy.
Emily Colette Wilkinson, Millions staff writer.
Jenny Davidson, author of Invisible Things and other books.
Scott Esposito, proprietor of Conversational Reading and editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
Carolyn Kellogg, LA Times staff writer.
Anne K. Yoder of The Millions.
Marjorie Kehe, book editor at the Christian Science Monitor.
Neal Pollack, author of Stretch: The Unlikely Making Of A Yoga Dude and other books.
Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.
Allen Barra writes for the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Beast.
Dorothea Lasky, author of Black Life and AWE.
Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books, The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.
Stephanie Deutsch, critic and historian.
Lydia Kiesling, Millions staff writer.
Lorraine Adams, author of The Room and the Chair.
Rachel Syme, NPR.com books editor.
Garth Risk Hallberg, Millions staff writer and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
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Avi Steinberg’s memoir Running the Books: Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian is the sort of book that you attempt to put down partway, only to wander around your apartment, disoriented, picking up random objects and placing them elsewhere for no reason, before finally relenting and returning to read. The premise, like the pace, is catchy, almost irresistible: Steinberg, former yeshiva student, Harvard graduate, freelance obituary writer, and (perhaps needless to add) self-proclaimed “loner and romantic,” takes a job running a Boston prison library and serving as the resident creative writing teacher.
There is a voyeuristic thrill to peering inside a prison, not merely at the incarcerated, an isolated community of sinister and curious social outcasts, but at the entire mini-civilization – the guards, staff, rules, rituals – which all seem so foreign and exotic compared to our own. Television shows like Oz and Prison Break in particular capitalized on the dark glamour that prison holds for the outside, and did their part in shrouding it with as much urban mystique as The Sopranos did for mob life. We want to look in; we just don’t want to go in.
But it’s through the eyes of a fellow outsider that we get to observe in Running the Books. With his orthodox Jewish upbringing and witty, literary reference-laden commentary, Steinberg, like many of his readers, clearly does not belong in a prison – on either side of the law – as much as he doubts this at times. Or as one inmate remarks, “You’re an undercover playa – I like that.” But this is exactly what renders the reading experience so much more honest: the book doesn’t force its readers to adopt a false attitude of worldliness and blasé to accommodate it; we’re afforded our natural reactions because they are more often than not Steinberg’s reactions. As a narrator, he is infinitely relatable. He likewise has naive and uselessly emotional responses to what amount to commonplace injustices. He is just as prone to passing superficial (though bitingly funny) judgments, as in the case of his first five creative writing students who remind him of the famous line from Leviathan, with which Thomas Hobbes envisions life without a central sovereign as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Writes Steinberg: “Here they were, reunited in one room, sitting in front of me: Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short.”
Prison is not short for characters, and like Steinberg, you’ll find it impossible to remained detached. There is the female inmate who sees through the prison yard window that the son she abandoned as a child is incarcerated in the same walls; the convict who dreams of hosting his own hood cooking show “Thug Sizzle”; the gang of prison guard union buddies who call themselves the “Angry Seven”; the charismatic pimp whose memoirs Steinburg edits until learning the hideous truth about his past.
As the prison librarian, the “Bookie,” Steinberg’s memoir is as much about the inmates’ interactions with literature as with himself. He assembles a Sylvia Plath shelf in the library at the request of her ardent (and depressed) female fans, which causes him no small amount of concern: “Ariel would never arouse the suspicions of myopic prison censors, who reserved the right to remove books of incitement and violence. But just because Ariel was art didn’t make it less dangerous — in fact, it made it potentially far more so.” Shakespeare month for the prison film group begins badly (“I can’t say I wasn’t warned. There was plenty of Shakespearian foreshadowing,”) until Othello (the Laurence Fishburne version) and Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet are explosive hits. One inmate tells Steinberg he will refuse to speak to him until he reads The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Dubois. When he argues that he’s already read it, the inmate scolds: “Read it again…Cause you missed the whole point.”
But literature is not merely interacted with in Running the Books; it is alive. In prison, as in literature, all of the flaws of our own society appear exaggerated, often even grotesque. Violence is as inescapable and inherent a mechanism of justice as it is in Icelandic blood feud literature like Njal’s Saga or Egil’s Saga. More than once Steinberg finds himself a victim of the Kafkaesque arbitrary and impenetrable bureaucracy that governs both inmates and staff alike. (Coincidentally, you might recall Steinburg’s name from Elif Batuman’s recent piece “Kafka’s Last Trial” for the New York Times Magazine, in which she and Steinberg visit the house of Eva Hoffe, longtime custodian of Kafka’s last manuscripts.)
Nonetheless, it’s the words of the inmates themselves – whether in “kites,” secret notes that prisoners hide for one another in library books, and through “skywriting,” words spelled out backwards by male prisoners in the yard toward female prisoners’ windows – that are most affecting. We know prison to be something of a “Civil Death,” that the political (and to a great extent legal) voices of inmates go unheard. But Steinberg, who retains a reverence for the written word from his years studying the Torah, is consumed by how often the words of prisoners go unread. Kites must be unearthed and confiscated: “Books are not mailboxes,” a sign fastened to the library walls grimly declares. Skywriting, where it’s never quite clear who is signaling to whom, let alone what words they are spelling, is as predestined for misinterpretation, confusion, and jealousy as the communications in a French farce. And words from the inside out are equally unfortunate: it is not easy to write letters home from prison (in fact, one inmate runs a successful freelance poetry business designed to ease this burden), and prisoners often end up shredding or abandoning letters to loved ones.
Why do people write, knowing they might ultimately be writing to no one? And what is the worth of all of these words that are doomed to go unread?
For days I kept imaging the fate of the world’s misplaced letters. I started noticing them everywhere. All the right letters sitting on desks and dressers, slipped into purses, abandoned in email Draft folders, forever sealed and unsent…And the wrong letters, placed in someone’s hands – which, once delivered, may never be taken back. Emailed and immediately regretted. When I looked around the world, I couldn’t see these letters. But I became aware of their indirect presence. They contained life’s great subtexts… bound to a person by an almost invisible string. Even the unsent ones are very much present. Especially the unsent ones.
On one level, Running the Books is effortlessly readable. The stories weave in and out of each other, and through this the narrative turns compulsive: you need only become invested in one power struggle, one absurd operation, one hopeless endeavor to become invested altogether. But there is a profound weight to the memoir, too. Steinberg is not merely relatable as a narrator; he relates – his frustration, his ego, his susceptibility – and as my endless stretches of page-turning inevitably gave way to wandering about my apartment, I realized it was Steinburg’s own disorientation that I was feeling.
In the moral ambiguities of prison, the comforting ideals of “good” and “right” are luxuries that have no place. They provide useless road maps. And yet, Steinberg must still aim for something. He must still retain some grace. Even then, his efforts often amount to nothing, or worse. You might not agree with all of his decisions, but you spare him censure because he is a far harsher critic of himself. And you cannot deny that he is trying really, desperately hard.
For all of its vivid characters, Running the Books is thus ultimately a book about character, a virtue most notable for the constant (and often wasted) effort it requires to be maintained. In literature, as in prison, all of the flaws of our own society appear exaggerated. But, however muted, the flaws here are the same. Life on the outside is just as rife with vulnerability, doomed optimism, moral ambiguity, and unsatisfactory compromise. And with this insight, when you re-enter society from the haze of a book, you orient yourself once more.
The latest effort from superstar translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is now on shelves. P & V’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories is in our Hall of Fame, and we interviewed the couple last year. Also out: Mark Twain’s long-embargoed Autobiography is now shipping; V.S. Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa; X’ed Out by graphic novel master Charles Burns; Avi Steinburg’s literary memoir Running the Books: Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian; and the odd literary project that is James Franco has a new collection out, Palo Alto