I’ve been reading Running the Books, by Avi Steinberg. Subtitled “The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian,” the book is both an exploration of prison culture and a tale of Avi’s attempt to find a place in the world that will do until his ambition to be a writer can unfold. As a not-very-ambitious man who realizes this might take some time, he is intrigued by “the promise of job security and health insurance,” as he puts it.
So far, I’m liking the book. (I’m about halfway through.) I like his openness to the inmates he writes about–he brings their humanity through to us, and since I don’t know any pimps, playas, cons, or gangstas (that I know of) I appreciate the ride-along into his world of the prison library and its denizens.
He’s got a nice touch for musing; I particularly like the passage in which he compares gangs to the Hasidim of his youth. The pacing of the book is good. He’s a good writer.
But… it strikes me that Avi’s using the prisoners. It’s like he took the prison librarian job just to gather material for a book. Which made me think about the genre of “stunt books,” writing about self-experiment a la Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed or the others described in the article I just linked to…
So the question is, is writing a stunt book a bad thing? Maybe there’s a more uplifting, more honorable version of the stunt, what I’ll call the “critical life experience” book. In this genre, a protagonist who isn’t terribly deep, wise, accomplished–a person like me, in other words–goes through an experience that makes him/her a little more deep, wise, accomplished, and then writes about it, bringing a bit of that personal growth to readers by proxy.
I don’t have much interest in writing a stunt book, but I do have an abiding interest in learning from life experiences. Life is way too short (and money too tight) to fit in a all the critical life experiences I want, so I love a good book that brings one my way.
So far, I think that’s what Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books is doing for me. I’ll let you know what I think when I finish it.
p.s. I really like the book cover design–a portrait made of due-date stamps. Nice!