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Books

December 8, 2010

A Most Unorthodox Occupation

Avi Steinberg worked as a prison librarian. Then he decided to add his own book to the shelf.

Michael Gluckstadt

It's a place where some people pass through and others stay for a long time. Interaction between the sexes is minimal. It can instill a great change in the nature of many who've spent time there. And at its core is a bustling library, the locus for all manners of social, academic, and legal undertakings.

Avi Steinberg
"It just feels more honest and natural to admit that you were there. That you, as writer, aren't some neutral apparition in the story."

Avi Steinberg

This actually describes two places in Avi Steinberg's life. One is the Orthodox yeshiva he attended in the West Bank years ago. The other is the Bay State Correctional Center where he worked as a prison librarian, the subject of his recent memoir, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian. In the following interview, conducted over email and edited for clarity, Steinberg expounds on the practice of immersive journalism, the impact of Orthodox thinking on his personality and outlook, and when he realized he was living his next book.

Gelf Magazine: At what point during your time working as a prison librarian did you realize you were working on a story?

Avi Steinberg: It was late in the game. I was looking for a job with healthcare, while doing writing on the side—that is, fiction writing. I figured that a job like this would be a good education in life and language for an aspiring writer, more valuable than spending my day with other writers in an MFA program, for instance. (I'd had the same thought about newspaper journalism, but it was getting tougher for me to maintain the hustle.) As far as realizing that I was working on a story: I tend to see everything, all interesting parts of life, as playing a part in a future story. If I had a funny bus ride or if I met an interesting person in prison, I would think that one day some bit of it would appear in a story. I think this wide view of story is more of a novelistic approach to writing, to gather everything seen and experienced from childhood until five minutes ago, and filter it into a narrative. Once a person decides, or more often recognizes, that he is a writer, he becomes more vigilant in seeing everyday detail in terms of consciously created narratives. I think this compulsion to translate everyday life into a story is in fact what first makes a person to decide to write. For someone like this, it's either writing, or going around talking to himself. I write nonstop in notebooks, which are the first drafts for the 1017 books I'm currently working on. The prison book emerged from these daily scribblings, sketches, many of which I made during downtime in the prison library itself. Even while I was working in the prison, I wrote an article for the Boston Globe about teaching poetry in prison. That was my first published piece on the prison library. In retrospect, that was the start of the book. But I think it was only when I'd made the decision to leave the place, when I could take an over-the-shoulder view of the experience, and could see it as a totality—beginning, middle, end—that I began to see that the prison library was not, as far as writing was concerned, an education in life, or an inspiration for stories, but actually the story itself. I also realized that it wasn't fiction or straightforward reportage but a nonfictional dramatization, in my voice, of my daily experiences in this place. In other words, a memoir. I looked in my notebooks and found a detailed account of the incident in which a former inmate mugged me and recognized me on a Boston street corner. I had written it the moment I'd returned home after the incident. I read it a month later, and the account seemed almost complete—it was funny and sad and surprising and personal—like a chapter in a book. And so it proceeded from there.

Gelf Magazine: Did that change how you acted at work on a daily basis?

Avi Steinberg: There's definitely an elevated vigilance there. And, in prison, when interesting stuff did happen, which was often, I'd pull out my notebook and jot it down. That's always what I do. But when you have a job to do, you do the job and most of the time you get caught up in it. I was too busy just trying to do the work well. Which is to say, not screwing up.

Gelf Magazine: Had you done any other type of immersion journalism before working in the prison?

Avi Steinberg: No. And even this project was an unusual kind of immersion journalism. I was certainly immersed in a substantive way in the subject. I was a part of the story and was implicated as a character. But I wasn't really consciously "playing a role" and I hadn't arrived there on some specific journalistic mission. It happened organically. I came as myself. I didn't try to blend in. Sometimes I did blend in anyway, and sometimes I didn't. For better or worse, this approach can probably only come from a naïve twentysomething who knows nothing about publishing and even less about life.

Gelf Magazine: What sort of writing do you model your own work after?

Avi Steinberg: Letter writing, mostly. It's the most personal, immediate form. A lot of my favorite narrative writing, both fiction and nonfiction, takes its cues from letters. I think of all of my writing as a letter to a specific person. I organized my book around letters because, as it happens, it's major feature of my prison library and of the characters I profile. (The inmates would hide letters in library books, for other inmates to find. There was a sign in the library: BOOKS ARE NOT MAILBOXES. I fervently disagree.) I love the comment made by Saul Bellow, in a letter: "A novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take the risk of mortality and decay." In this regard, he cites Dickens. I return to Bellow and Dickens often, for their ability to weave humor and heartbreak, for their affection for delusional dreamers, and for the way they spin entire universes from a person's face and gait, gestures and fashion decisions—and all of this before the person even opens his mouth…which of course is when things really get interesting. I find this to be true to life. Both Dickens and Bellow see the writing of minor characters as a fine art. This too seems a true reflection of life.
I also return to some of the great narrative nonfiction writers. I love the 60s crowd. There was an earnest thrill there about re-energizing nonfiction; and they were fearless. They also had access that is rare these days. I love Mailer walking around the 1968 political conventions. Hunter Thompson on The Hell's Angels. Joan Didion's California reportage. Gay Talese on Floyd Patterson. I discovered Ted Conover's Newjack when I was working in prison. As I looked into his other titles, I discovered that he'd written two other books on subjects I had dreamed of writing about: hoboing and taxi driving. And I thought, this is an author I need to read. He's been a big inspiration and it's a thrill to meet him. Peter Hessler's wonderful first book, River Town, about his experiences teaching English in provincial China, was also an influence. I love his humor, which was wry but lovingly meted out, and the way he seamlessly incorporated sharp and wise mini-essays into his narrative.

Gelf Magazine: There's an interesting contrast in the book between your view of prison as an outsider and Orthodox Judaism as a former insider. Do you think one of those informed the other?

Avi Steinberg: One of the great gifts I received from growing up in the cocoon of the Orthodox Jewish community was a strong sense of self, of belonging. Even, ironically, when I recognized that my place in the community was to be an outsider: this too is a role, this too has a long lineage in the community. One of the oldest, in fact. I think this thick sense of self, of place, of language, which was forged in yeshiva, helped me in prison as well. It allowed me to wander in a foreign environment without getting too lost, too disoriented. I didn't feel the need to fit in, and this allowed me relax a bit and just be there. At the same time, I was very conscious of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls a "thick culture." Orthodoxy is a thick tribal culture and so is prison. They are very different cultures—but being an expert in one thick culture, from my life in yeshiva, helped me, by analogy, navigate and make sense of this other thick culture.

Gelf Magazine: Your characterizations of certain aspects of Orthodox culture—weddings, Talmud study, etc. —are incisive. Did you notice the critical elements you highlight at the time or only looking back after removing yourself?

Avi Steinberg: I was critical at the time. Which is precisely why I eventually moved away from it. I always loved the intense, almost psychotic, devotion to Torah study, the way that text study is taken as a life-or-death endeavor. But I always had problems with the social structure and politics of the community. And the insularity, which is both its blessing and curse. Even when I was very enmeshed in it, a part of me knew I wasn't long for the community.
I must add that a good deal of this critical thinking—both the content of the criticisms and, in fact, the value of criticism generally—I learned in Orthodox yeshivas. We were taught to question openly and rigorously. The Talmud is not a catechism: it is a raging sea of arguments and counter arguments, many of which are actually provocative. There's a prevailing attitude of dispute as a form of love and relationship. Along these lines, the tradition of Yiddish humor is alive and well in the Orthodox community. They thoroughly enjoy laughing at themselves, which requires a high degree of self-awareness—this can also be a form of self-critique. It would be an understatement to say that this mode of thinking made lasting impression on me. It formed me. Having moved away from the Orthodox sphere, my sense of appreciation along with criticism, has grown. I feel closer to it than ever.

Gelf Magazine: Now that you've written a book about your experiences, have you acquired a taste for this type of work or would you prefer more straightforward writing and reporting, covering stories with a little bit of journalistic distance?

Avi Steinberg: I think variation is key. It wouldn't be challenging or productive to write in exactly the same mode, whatever mode that might be. After being holed up writing a book, for example, it feels necessary to do some reportage, to get back in touch with the here-and-now. To get the old legs moving. Doing some straightforward reportage can also be a mental corrective to the excesses of first-person writing. It reminds you that working from the radical first-person perspective can, if you sink too far into that orientation, lead to solipsistic writing, which is the worst. This outward-oriented way of thinking comes in handy when you return to the first-person mode.
That said, I've definitely acquired a taste for first-person narrative writing; it's the mode that suits me most. It just feels more honest and natural to admit that you were there, mixed up in this subject, that you, as writer, aren't some neutral apparition in the story. The trick, I think, is to have a clear idea of how much to bring yourself into the story. It could be as little as half a sentence or be a major thread of the narrative. The story should determine this proportion. As a reader, I can't stand when a writer's persona seems to be taking over a story. But, at the same time, I find it frustrating, and sometimes even suspicious, when a writer doesn't utter a peep in his own voice. I mean, you just know the writer is working out his own thoughts on the page anyway—why doesn't he just own up to it and admit that he's a person with biases and doubts and misunderstandings and occasional bouts of heartburn. Especially when these factors are, as they may be, relevant to the story.

Gelf Magazine: Do you know what your next project will be?

Avi Steinberg: The short answer: No. The long answer is: Yes, maybe. I have an idea that I've been working on. My publishing friends all seem excited about it, which is encouraging. But my fear is that it will drive me slowly insane, which is less encouraging. If I utter its name, the descent into madness will begin.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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