Follow-up: Running the Books

If you'll remember, a while back I briefly reviewed Avi Steinberg's Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.

When I reviewed it, I hadn't quite finished it. I just wanted to follow up here and say I did finish it, and I really did like it all the way through. The last 25 pages are actually quite spectacular, which is noteworthy (so many memoirs start strong, and then start sputtering on to less-than-memorable endings). My one quibble with the book is that I think it could be about 75-100 pages shorter, but that's primarily because I believe most memoirs shouldn't be longer than 300 pages.*

Still and all: a good read.

*This is a corollary to my rule about movies only needing to be 90 minutes long.

More dark reads in the middle of the night.

So another book I've been reading after CRjr's early morning feedings is Avi Steinberg's well-reviewed title Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.*

Running It's taking me forever to get through it, because as much as I love reading in the wee small hours, lately I've been so tired that I can only keep it up for fifteen minutes or so at a crack, and it takes a long time to get through a 400-page book in 15-minute increments, even if you are a fast reader. That doesn't mean I'm not enjoying it, although "enjoying" might be the wrong word.

Steinberg details the time he spent as a prison librarian after he decided he needed a steady job with health insurance benefits.* In addition to narrating his work experiences (complete with working with prison inmates on work detail, teaching writing classes, sweeping the library after each period of visitors to clear out the numerous letters and notes (or "kites") left behind in books for other inmates, and even helping one inmate write his pimping memoir) he discusses his own career direction, or lack thereof, which he admits is less than focused and therefore reviled within his own Jewish community.

It's an interesting read but it's another one I'm finding sad. Thinking of all these people locked up in prison just makes me sick--not because I feel they don't deserve it, but more because the thought of all that roiling, always-in-danger-of-exploding violence and aggression in one place makes me very, very uneasy. And the author does do a good job of explaining things about prison that make it too horrifyingly realistic:

"There are various reasons to cry in prison.

Crying as initiation rite. Dice claimed that any inmate who tells you didn't cry when he first came to prison is a liar. As he said this, the three inmates standing around us nodded. One of them confessed he was so stressed his first day in prison he could hardly breathe. When he heard the door of the cell bolt shut for the night, he panicked and began pacing, beating on the door and shouting...

His cellmate was an old guy who took pity on him. 'He just said to me, 'Get into bed, son. Let yourself cry. There ain't no shame in that. Just do it, and then you'll be done with it.' And so that's what I did.'" (p. 338.)

To his credit Steinberg doesn't sugarcoat his own role in the prison hierarchy or attempt to make excuses for any of the inmates--a particularly strong chapter is the one in which he questions his helping with the pimp memoir, after seeing a different inmate out in "real life," (a Dunkin' Donuts, to be exact) pimping out another former inmate). So yes, I'm finding it interesting. But to say it makes for light or humorous reading would be all wrong. I've got about fifty pages to go--I'll let you know what I end up thinking about it.

*It's got a great cover, too. You probably can't tell here, but the images making up his face are library date due stamps.

**So sad that this is the only reason I figure about 80% of people keep going to their jobs. Good old health insurance.

What makes a library lovely.

Not much new in reading news today, except that I'd like to give a BIG shout-out to my librarian friend Katharine, who invited me to her library this week to see a photography display* she'd put up, and to grab a coffee. The display was beautiful, and a good time was had by all. (I also got to see two of my other favorite local librarians, Katie and Gregg, while I was there.) The library which I visited remains one of my least favorite in terms of its parking lot and design, but I felt very warmly towards it yesterday because of the three aforementioned librarians who made it just lovely, proving once again that, for me at least, the people (and not the building) make the library.

One of those fantastic librarians also noted that she had previously had a problem getting this site to accept her comment. If this has happened to you, I apologize. I think the problem is that I use TypePad to write the blog, but my domain name is hosted through another service, so if either of those pieces are being hinky for the day (which does happen) I think it gums up the commenting works. If you have regular problems with this please do let me know at [email protected]; otherwise, I'm hoping it's just various technology pieces clunking up against each other periodically. Again, I apologize--I love your comments and I hate to think of someone taking the time to write one and then not having it "take."

In other hilarious, completely unrelated-to-reading news, yesterday I got a call from my cat's vet, reporting that her bloodwork, done in anticipation for a tooth extraction, was all fine. As I told Mr. CR, I'm going to ask my vet if he can be my doctor too. Of the seemingly gallons of blood and urine samples I've given the human medical establishment over the past few years, I can promise you that NOT ONCE has anyone ever called to report on them, fine or otherwise.** So if you're looking for responsive and humanistic health care, I would suggest seeing your local vet.

*I checked out a photography book called Things Once Seen, by Richard Quinney, because I loved the title, and can't wait to look it over. Katharine, you're the bestest.

**I take it back: once I got a letter listing various results from a blood test, but it was from a test taken by an insurance company, not by my healthcare "provider."

I should have liked it, but...

So I know it's super-cheap to have you come to Citizen Reader and have me just send you elsewhere, but today my review of Marilyn Johnson's This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All is up over at the Reader's Advisor Online, and so help me, I just don't have the strength to review it here as well.

Overdue I give Ms. Johnson points for having her heart in the right place, and I think she's a skillful enough writer (I loved her earlier book The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries), but evidently I still have some unresolved issues about librarianship that are clouding my judgement about this title. I can let you in on a little tidbit I did not share over at RAO: after reading the first few chapters, I said to Mr. CR, "God, reading this book is so boring and frustrating it's just like I'm back to BEING a librarian."

Bless him, Mr. CR knew just what I meant. Now, being a librarian was never really boring. But it could be very, very frustrating. I salute this author for her positive take on the subject, really I do, and I also salute her for talking with lots of librarians and really getting a pretty good handle on the field. But some of it was so "rah-rah!" I just couldn't take it. Sure, there'll be some friction between library staff and tech services, but they'll work through it! Sure, there's a librarian stereotype, but look at all these cool new librarians subverting it! Sure, it's kind of a drag that they're turning the 42nd street New York Public Library from a research facility to a let everyone in, check out DVDs to toddlers kind of library, but isn't it great they're throwing their doors open!

And I really had to laugh that she was surprised about poop in the library. If you aren't aware of the preponderance and variety of bodily fluids present in all libraries, well, then, you really haven't learned library culture.

In all? I think this is a book for big, positive thinkers, not small, negative thinkers like me. Small, negative thinkers who work in libraries and constantly ask questions about workflow issues, signs to help patrons rather than to "complement the library's color scheme," staff morale, and how best to train shelvers so books actually end up where they belong will not find much of interest here.

A love affair with books.

For the past few weeks I've been making my way slowly through the title Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, and it's wonderful. It's a literary biography about Oscar, told entirely through the lens of the books he read as a child, owned, gave away to others, and had confiscated and sold when he was put into jail.


I never really knew much about Wilde, and reading this book was a lovely way to get up to speed on his life (although reading about his arrest and imprisonment for "gross indecency" and "sodomy"* was anything but lovely--the prison they sent him to didn't sound good at all). But that is only a very small part of the story; author Wright does a splendid job of exploring Wilde's childhood and education through the books he read, explaining how that reading influenced his later life and his own writing:

"The folk tales and Ossianic legends formed the landscape of Wilde's adult imagination. He spoke fondly 'of the beauty and glamour of the old Celtic legends,' and retold Irish folk tales at dinner parties in Paris and London. During these performances Wilde imitated, in an alien urban context, the seanchai [Irish storyteller] he had encountered as a boy in the West of Ireland. When he picked up his pen too, Wilde drew on the reservoir of images, scenes and phrases he had absorbed in his infancy." (p. 25.)

Even if you've never read any Oscar Wilde** (I've started The Picture of Dorian Gray on tape, but I don't know if I'll be able to stick with it), if you're a reader, you should definitely consider this title. And do make sure to read the afterword, which explains the author's own education, following in Wilde's footsteps.

*Mr. CR read a couple of those chapters and thought that perhaps it might have been prudent of Wilde not to have a love affair with the son of the Marquess of Queensberry, a peer of the realm, who was really the one who was determined to put Wilde away. I have told Mr. CR that sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants, but he's not buying it.

**I still don't know him all that well, but I was charmed that one of Wilde's first requests for books from inside prison was for titles by Gustave Flaubert (like Madame Bovary), another author who had been charged with indecency for that very book. That took some chutzpah, I think.

Love letter to libraries: Part two.

Do you love your library? I bet you do. If you read yesterday's post, you'll have noticed that I'm having a rather soppy new love affair with my community library, which took me by surprise. Mercifully, a mere ten months after quitting my job IN a public library, I think I'm finally ready to think of the library as a place again without wanting to throw up. We're really making progress.

As I can now think more clearly about libraries, I thought it might be a good time to share some suggestions for library use that I would hope make our libraries better for everyone.* Of course, as most of you are readers and, judging from your comments, quite interesting and kind people as well, I realize that in offering this list of suggestions I'm largely preaching to the choir. But that's okay. Sometimes one wants to preach to the converted, just for a break from preaching to the unconverted, who never listen anyway.

Citizen Reader's Suggestions for Loving Your Library**:

1. As you browse the shelves, don't be afraid to straighten the books up in a generally tidy kind of way. I'm not suggesting you shelve or put things in order or strain yourself to get to a shelf you can't reach or do this with every shelf you browse. But doesn't it feel good when you look at a shelf of books falling over and in general disorder, and then you give them a gentle push against the shelf side and smartly tap the bookend in place against a newly straight row of books? Think how nice things would look if everyone tidied one shelf as they looked around.

2. On a related note, teach your child (when they reach a suitable age) to take out a book, look at it, put it back, and then go on to the next book, as opposed to pulling every book off every shelf in reach and then piling them on the floor. Library staff members are not your maids or your kids' mommies. Likewise, trash receptacles exist solely to collect your trash--make use of them rather than leaving food wrappers, scrap papers, and used kleenexes (and even, in some libraries--condoms and drug paraphenalia) around the library.

3. On a note related to that, PLEASE WATCH YOUR OWN CHILDREN WHEN IN THE LIBRARY. At least 80% of my reason for quitting last year was because I literally didn't have the heart to run out from behind the counter and yank any more toddlers back in the doors (and away from the parking lot, a few steps away), only to return them to mommies who never, ever said "thank you" for it.

4. Pay your fines. If you don't want to pay fines, return your books on time. You're not going to find a better deal than that anywhere.

5. Wash your hands and train your kids to wash their hands both before and after all of you visit the public library. I'm usually not a germ-o-phobe but you'll feel better about the library if you don't get a cold after visiting it.

Now, you'll excuse me? I'm off to use the library, but I have to wash my hands first.

*Okay, most of these would really make life better for library staff members. But wouldn't it be nice to make someone's day, even if it's just a lowly library worker's?

**How's about it? Anyone else got any suggestions they'd like to add to my list?

Love letter to libraries.

Typically when I go to my local library I head right for the check-out desk and simply pick up the items I've requested on hold. I will sometimes browse around, but not often.

Esquire But this weekend I went to my library in the company of Mr. CR, who wanted to look around first. So I said okay, and went downstairs to pick up the most recent issue of Esquire that I could get (hello, Clive Owen!). While I was there, I wandered through the nonfiction travel section and looked at books on Scotland and England. I then popped back upstairs and considered the CD collection for a while, thinking I should learn something about classical music and selecting a Chopin CD, but then changing my mind and taking the soundtrack for The Motorcycle Diaries, which I'd heard before and liked. I headed over to the DVD shelves to see if Mr. CR was ready (he wasn't; he was considering whether it was a sign from fate that the first DVD of the first season of Deadwood was in, and that he should start watching the series).

Fine, I said, and headed over to New Fiction and New Nonfiction just to browse. As I was running my hand over the new book spines (I always do this around books; for the most part when shopping I don't touch a thing, but I am the original Miss Touchy-Feely when it comes to books*), something occurred to me out of nowhere:

Libraries are really pretty great, aren't they? They're entire buildings housing books, CDs, magazines, movies, and tons of other things, all just sitting around waiting for me to borrow and use them--for free. It's unbelievable, really. What an idea. Let's all share some stuff. How on earth did that ever get started? I mean, really, it's stunning. We can't really figure out public education, we spend too much on war, and health care is a mess, but in libraries we really get the idea of "share and share alike" right.

It took my breath away, to be honest with you. It's so sad that I didn't have that feeling anymore for the last several years that I worked in a library. How typical. I couldn't really appreciate the library until I stepped out of it. Although I sometimes miss the library, I'm so glad I quit, so I could have that feeling again.

*Speaking of books as objects, check out the neat list at Reader's Advisor Online of books about book covers! Super cool.