'Running The Books' In A Prison Library When Avi Steinberg graduated from Harvard, he didn't know what to do next — so he took a job as a prison librarian. He shares stories of his time working at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Running the Books.
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'Running The Books' In A Prison Library

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'Running The Books' In A Prison Library

'Running The Books' In A Prison Library

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Avi Steinberg had trouble finding a job when he graduated from Harvard. He scraped together a living writing freelance obituaries for the Boston Globe but drifted along, working sporadically on a novel, until he spotted a job opening that offered steady pay and health coverage: librarian at a prison in Boston.

When he started to work inside, Steinberg discovered that the prison library is a community center, when one prisoner plans the cooking show he'll host when he gets out, to be called "Thug Sizzle"; a fragile prostitute connects with Sylvia Plath; and a lot of other people share their ambitions, heartbreak and a good deal of humor.

Later in the program, NPR's Jason Beaubien on the cost of almost four years of Mexico's war with the drug cartels. But first, if you've spent time in a prison, either as an inmate or on staff, we want to hear how you used the library there.

Our phone number, 800-989-825(ph). Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Avi Steinberg's memoir is called "Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian," and he joins us from a studio in Philadelphia. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. AVI STEINBERG (Author): Good afternoon.

CONAN: And not just a community center but a post office too.

Mr. STEINBERG: That's right. People would come into the library and leave notes inside of the books. They'd write the notes - sometimes in the library I'd watch them writing the note, and they'd slip them into the books and then hide it somewhere in the shelf.

CONAN: And these were called kites.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah, that was the term that people used, kite as in the kite, the kind of kite you fly in the sky. And the idea was that you, you know, you kind of send this little precarious, you know, object into the world, and whoever sees it sees it.

CONAN: Sometimes they are directed to specific individuals, but sometimes, as you suggest, just messages in a bottle.

Mr. STEINBERG: That's right. I mean sometimes it would be addressed to someone specifically, and sometimes it would be addressed to whomever found it. And often that person was me, of course.

And my job, part of my job description was to search and destroy these little notes, which were it was a constant flow of notes. Also, there's something about this prison, this particular place, facility, where I was - there were men and women in the facility, completely separate from each other. They never saw each other, never came face to face. But they at some point would use the library, at some point during the day.

So this was actually a convenient place to leave a note from a man to a woman or a woman to a man, and that actually was the bulk of the correspondence.

CONAN: There was in fact a regular correspondence between well, kind of a volatile relationship, as I remember.

Mr. STEINBERG: That's right, yeah. I describe it as the soap opera, which I have to admit, you know, I was tuning into. It's my job. So -but yeah, there were all kinds of soap operas. There were I mean, you know, because you'd start seeing recurring characters and people, you know, cross messages, and it got pretty complicated.

Also, people are not necessarily or very rarely using their real names. So, you know, you're hearing nicknames, and so people change their nicknames sometimes. So it's pretty confusing, yeah.

CONAN: And it was at one of those moments where you realized you're intercepting people's communications - you had to constantly remember, well, you're part of the prison staff.

Mr. STEINBERG: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, I was hired by staff. I had a job to do. And it was also, you know, it was important for me to do this particular job for myself in terms of my own ability or my own task in the library itself.

I had to send the message that I was in control of this space. People took one look at me, you can't see me on the radio, but I was, you know, kind of a, you know, a tender-looking boy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: And so people took one look at me and said this guy has no control over this place. So it was important for me to, you know, to send a message that I actually was in control. Whether or not that was true is a separate point, but yeah.

CONAN: You took on the role of, as you describe it, the sheriff librarian.

Mr. STEINBERG: That's right, yeah. This is you know, you have to everyone's got to be a little there's a little sheriff in every little corner of the prison. And I think it was important for me to do that, and people respect you for running a tight ship. That was the word that was used often, yeah.

CONAN: Yet there was this one inmate, with whom you worked closely, part of the inmate library staff, a man you call Fat Cat, who after you took on the role of the sheriff librarian had some advice for you.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah, he said: Maybe you should just stick to what you know because you're not tough. You're at best a punk. So why don't you just be a librarian?

Of course, you know, I think librarians are tough. But he had a point. You know, I think at that point in the story, I was maybe going overboard in trying to look tough, which of course ends up looking weak. So he had a point.

CONAN: He had a point. And there was another member of the inmate staff, a man named Coolidge, who, well, among other things parceled out legal advice.

Mr. STEINBERG: Oh, Coolidge is a you know, this is a man who could have been attorney general in another world. Yeah, he was a great legal mind, and he actually you know, we were never sure whether he actually was conversant in the law, or he just talked about it a lot.

But ended up actually getting himself off. He defended himself and actually was able to acquit himself. So he was pretty good at what he did, apparently.

And he kind of held court in the back, literally in this case, in the back of the prison library. He was one of those jailhouse lawyers. And people would line up - he was a major attraction for us. You know, people would come for him and stay for us.

CONAN: But he was a con artist too.


CONAN: And there was something you started to call the Katrina Project, where you were trying to raise money from the prisoners, as strange as that may sound, to help the people, you know, isolated in New Orleans and various other places, and Coolidge sort of took over your project.

Mr. STEINBERG: He did, yeah. It does sound strange. You know, when you say it now, it does sound strange. At the time, for whatever reason, it didn't sound strange to me and my bosses. For good reason, we were suspicious, but they let me give it a shot anyway.

Yeah, he was very helpful. Wow, was he helpful. So he, you know, he basically decided he was going to help me with everything, and eventually, as I found out from other inmates, whether or not that was true - you never know what to believe in there - he was using this to somehow get people's numbers or ID numbers. There was some kind of con I never quite figured out, and I had to scrap the whole thing.

So yeah, but he had offered, you know, his help. He was very friendly about it.

CONAN: We're talking with Avi Steinberg about his book "Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian." If you've done time in prison and used the library, if you were on staff there, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Ed. Ed's with us from Grass Valley in California.

ED (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call. Interesting show. I worked in an institution for a short while, about a year and a half, before going out on the street, and found that many of the inmates who use the library were in fact more reasonable, easier to deal with, they thought more about what they were doing and the impact that prison life was making on their lives.

And in fact, when I got out on the street, I found fewer of those people back committing crimes and involved in a lower, a much lower rate of recidivism, maybe as much as only five percent of the normal.

So yeah, it was an interesting experience and opened my eyes. It made the prisoners human, actually, ironically, as funny as that sounds.

CONAN: And Ed, what did you do when you were working in a prison?

ED: I was a guard. I was working for a sheriff's office in the jail, in the - on sentenced prisoner section.

CONAN: Let me ask you a question. One of the controversies that erupts in the Suffolk County prison, where Avi Steinberg works - were the prisoners allowed to have hard-backed books, which he says can be used as armor or indeed sometimes as weapons?

ED: No, and in fact, in the jail I worked in, there had been instances of people hiding weapons in the binding and in the hard-backed covers. So no, paperback was essentially the book, and then - even then, the library was small, and only the people who had behaved well were given permission to use it. So it was a disciplinary tool, which is really unfortunate.

CONAN: Avi Steinberg, was it used that way in Suffolk County?

Mr. STEINBERG: The library itself as a disciplinary tool?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, truth is, people had different views of what it was, which was interesting for me, because you know, I came in. I was just asking people, so what's my job here? What is the point of this library?

And I got a lot of different answers, and I think they were all sort of true. A lot of the officers there, you know, would come up to me as I worked there, would come up to me and thank me for running the place because it served like a security function in the prison itself, which I hadn't known about or understood really.

But, you know, the guards themselves said this makes the place safer for us. And, you know, so that was a use of the library that I hadn't necessarily known or intended.

I mean, I was happy for that, but it was, you know, there were so many different ways that this library was used, and that certainly was one of them, yeah.

CONAN: Ed, thanks very much for the call.

ED: Thank you, take care.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Which were the most popular books in your library?

Mr. STEINBERG: That's a good question. The most popular book we didn't have, we didn't offer, I should say, is Robert Greene's "The 48 Laws of Power." That book was requested probably daily and probably more than once a day.

It's for those who don't know, it's a model I didn't know, actually, until I worked there. It's I think it came out a few years ago. It's basically an update of Machiavelli's laws or Machiavelli's "The Prince," and it's, you know, sort of a self-help book but with a very rough edge, you know, how to manipulate in the world. That was probably the most requested book. As I said, we didn't offer it.

The most popular genre was astrology, real estate and then of course popular authors: Terry McMillan, James Patterson, Dan Brown. Those books did not stay on the shelf. We had to keep them behind the shelf, behind our counter, because they were so popular.

CONAN: So those would be the page-turner, escape books.

Mr. STEINBERG: Sure. So, you know, in some ways it was just, you know, reflective of the outside world: same culture, same reading culture. What they called street books, generally books that - from publishers like Triple Crown Publications, these upstart publishers that put out pulp fiction, urban romances, you know, African-American romances that are extremely popular all over America now - they too were popular in the prison, much requested.

CONAN: And were the men's tastes in books different from the women's?

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah, that's an interesting question. There are so many differences between men and women in prison, generally. I mean, on a daily basis I would see both and both populations, and it was like a remarkable culture clash.

And certainly with reading tastes I saw that as well. The women, I think, like in the outside world, were probably better readers, more consistent readers.

There were different crazes, and I think this also points to the difference in culture, because the women sort of read as groups and not necessarily in an organized fashion, but it would still be like a popular craze.

So for example for example, Frida Kahlo, for a period of like three weeks, was like everyone was asking about Frida Kahlo. So like, you know, art books of Frida Kahlo's, all different types of books like that, yeah.

CONAN: We'll talk more with Avi Steinberg about Fat Cat and CC2Sweet(ph) and the other inmates he met during his two years as an accidental prison librarian.

If you've spent time in prison, as an inmate or a member of the staff, how did you use the library there? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Pimps make the best librarians, writes Avi Steinberg, psycho killers the worst, ditto con men. Gangsters, gun runners, bank robberies adapt at crowd control, at collaborating with a small staff, and planning with deliberation and executing with contained fury. All possess the librarian's basic skill set.

Scalpers and loan sharks certainly have a role to play, but even they lack that something, that je ne se qua, the elusive it. What would a pimp call it? Yes, the love.

As opening paragraphs go, that's pretty good, Avi Steinberg's first lines from "Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian." You can meet some of the inmate librarians Steinberg worked with, including Dice, the pimp who survived solitary confinement by memorizing Shakespeare, in an excerpt from "Running the Books" at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you've spent time in a prison, either as an inmate or on the staff, we want to hear how you used the prison library, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And you can go to our website too, and join the conversation there. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's see if we can go next to Andrew(ph), Andrew with us from Overland Park in Kansas.

ANDREW (Caller): Hello, how are you doing today, sir?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

ANDREW: Well, me personally, I actually served time in the prison system of Missouri, and I did I personally used the library as an escapism. But one day when I was playing a game of chess with a gentleman that was in jail with me, he said that he had been going through the prison system for quite a while and had attempted four times to pass his GED.

And while we were playing chess, you know, I learned a little bit about him and that he was in for cooking methamphetamines and whatnot. And I looked at him and I said: Why are you having trouble with the whole process of learning (unintelligible) GED? It's like I just don't get it.

CONAN: The GED, the high school equivalency exam.

ANDREW: Yeah, the high school equivalency is a general education diploma. And I told him, I said, well, you're sitting here in front of me and you're still alive, and you effectively have a chemistry degree in your head.

I said, but you're telling me you can't pass a GED class? I said there's just something going on. You must be learning differently. So let's go get some books from the library and see where your block is - you know, what it is that's keeping you from being able to learn.

And we just sat down one day and started working together, and we finally got to that a-ha moment with the books from the library, and he eventually passed his GED within a few weeks.

CONAN: Well, congratulations.

ANDREW: But yeah, I mean, the prison library was definitely an escape point for me. It was definitely one of those places where I could go and watch, like, National Geographic videos, so forth and so on.

CONAN: How much time did you have to serve?

ANDREW: I did three years.

CONAN: That can stretch into a long period of time. And of the books you got out of the prison library, are there any that were particularly meaningful to you?

ANDREW: Well, I was definitely caught with the "Left Behind" series. It was a book about the second coming of Christ. A lot of people might say that people find (unintelligible) or whatever, but I definitely have to admit that that series opened my eyes up.

CONAN: Was that series...

Mr. STEINBERG: Jesus did time.

CONAN: Pardon?

Mr. STEINBERG: Jesus did time.

CONAN: Yeah, absolutely. And I think about half the apostles did too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

ANDREW: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Was the "Left Behind" series popular in Boston?

Mr. STEINBERG: It wasn't as much. I mean, it was definitely requested, but considering its popularity outside, I would've thought maybe more so. But it wasn't a huge hit. But it was definitely there, yeah.

CONAN: And I was wondering about that remark he made about the chemistry degree in his head. Were books on chemistry available in the prison library?

Mr. STEINBERG: Sure, I mean, we had textbooks, you know, standard textbooks. You know, the library sort of it was not a tiny library, but it wasn't a huge library. We definitely tried to have like a strong school orientation, you know, people who really wanted to just make some kind of systematic study of whatever.

I don't know about chemistry necessarily, but yeah, we probably did have that. I'm sure we certainly had other textbooks.

There's another aspect to what he said that really caught me, and that is this discussion that happens between people. And in some ways, even more than what people end up reading, it's those conversations around books and the way that the library creates a space for people to have these kinds of conversations.

It's something that comes up a lot in my book because it really is what makes this place special. You know, they're just playing chess. They're wasting time, quote-unquote, but they're not. You know, they're meeting each other, talking, and eventually they're going to help each other out and not necessarily in crime, but also to help each other out in ways that are important for their lives, to get themselves on their feet.

So I had this experience with a lot of inmates. I think a lot of inmates have it, and the truth is, staff has it. People who spend time in the library, they start talking. They grow in ways they wouldn't necessarily expect.

CONAN: So you didn't go around saying shh all the time.

Mr. STEINBERG: No, this was not a shushing library. I made the conscious decision you know, it was me and another librarian, and we both had slightly different styles, but I did make a decision that I wanted it to be a more social place, which is, you know, it's a risky decision anywhere and especially in a prison.

And I also think that it's, you know, there's something very valuable, which - I mention this in the story, but there's something really valuable about having silence, especially in a prison, which is such a loud place. It's just loud.

That's one of the first impressions people have of prisons. It's in the architecture. You know, there's nothing to absorb sound. It's just steel and concrete. And so sound is just reverberating.

People are screaming, not just because, you know, they're screaming but - you know, to communicate across the hall, you can't just walk over to someone. You need to yell sometimes.

So it's just a very loud place. The library should be a refuge from that. So I certainly didn't want it to be too loud, but I also wanted it to be a place where people could feel free to talk. So it was kind of a balance.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Laura: I worked at South Bay as a teacher. Avi and I started at the same time. I was going to say he should talk about the woman on staff who taught parenting. She was everyone's mother, and with her suddenly the inmates all became little boys having a moment of childhood they never had.

She read them children's books. I did the same in my classroom sometimes and realized a lot of these guys had never been read to as a child.

Mr. STEINBERG: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Thank you, Laura, for that letter. Yeah, it wasn't just that she read them children's books. She also encouraged them to read children's books to their children, not just in some theoretical way, but she actually sat down with a lot of inmates and had them record themselves reading children's books. And these recordings would be given to their children.

It's a fantastic program, and it was obviously, like, you know, invaluable to these children, but also for these young parents who were in jail. It made them feel like they're doing something right. It made them feel good. It was just a really, really good thing.

But yeah, people even came to libraries to look for children's books. This was one of those differences between men and women. I saw more women on a regular basis come in and just, sometimes with tears in their eyes, with some kids' book that they hadn't seen, you know, since they were a kid.

And, you know, childhood for anyone is, you know, a complicated time, but a lot of people in prison did not really have a childhood, had a very troubled one. So, you know, it brought back all kinds of things. And I often would see someone standing there with some kind of kids' book, and I knew what the story was, yeah.

CONAN: We should point out Laura described the place as South Bay. That's where it was in Boston. The official name was the Suffolk County House of Corrections.

Let's see if we can get another caller in, Dave, Dave with us from Waukesha in Wisconsin.

DAVE (Caller): Hi, yes, I was in prison in Waupun, Wisconsin, which is a maximum security prison. And I actually got my education there.

I started out reading the classics. I started with Dostoyevsky. I read all that. And then I - you know, Hemingway, Dickens, Kafka, and then I really what I really liked, though, was the Russian, 19th-century Russian classic literature.

And I guess why I'm calling is, you know, I want people to know that some people, when they go to prison, they do make the best of their time. And I tell you, the world that opened to me I would have never found out here on the streets because I had no money to go to college, you know.

But I feel like I got my unofficial degree in there, and...

CONAN: And after you got out, did you still read Turgenev and people like that?

DAVE: I still read to this day, and you know, I got very much into Greek philosophy and history, the Romans, the Persians. It stuck with me. It has stuck with me the rest of my life.

CONAN: Avi, you describe the classic section as your favorite part.

DAVE: Oh, yeah, yeah, there's something about that. I think what it is, is now we have TV and radio and the Internet. In those days, 19th century literature, that was the form of communication.

CONAN: Yeah, Avi? I'm sorry just wanted to ask Avi a question. He had a special affinity for the classics and indeed hurt his back lifting them one day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah, I wish I could say it was a particularly heavy one, but I think it was more my back was weak. Yeah, I have a special love for those books. I think it's who knows why?

But I think it probably has to do somewhat with my own education. I was raised in Orthodox Jewish Yeshivas, and so I think I had a taste for those ancient texts, certainly the ancient ones but even the older ones (unintelligible) the 19th century texts.

There's something about finding the, you know, the familiar, something familiar in an ancient text or an old text. And you know, everything could be different, the way people dress, everything about it is different, and yet somehow it seems familiar, just something profound about that.

I also, incidentally, you know, felt that way a little bit about this prison, yeah.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Dave.

DAVE: Okay, bye.

CONAN: Here's an email from C.F. in Minnesota: I was incarcerated in Texas for nine months. The library was a life saver. I used the time to catch up on classics such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, as well as Clavell, Irving Stone and John Irving. I also used some resources to develop a business plan for my current business - a life saver in passing the time. I agree that inmates who used the library were more reasonable and knew this was not where we wanted to be.

So let's see if we can go next to - this is Peter, Peter with us from Cranford in New Jersey.

PETER (Caller): Yes, hi.


PETER: I was a police officer, and then I retired from that. And I became a teacher in prison, and I taught GED. And younger inmates were made to come - anyone below 21 was made to come in. But anyone above that, if we had room, could come to class. And every day, a man whom I called Mr. Johnson - everyone else I called by their first name, but I called him mister. And he came to class, just about functionally illiterate, but he wanted to get his GED.

And he kept trying and kept trying, and he advanced in class. And I used to stop at my library, and they used to sell off books, and I picked up a book or two every now and then. I gave him a copy of "Cry, the Beloved Country." And he took it. I never expected to get it back. You never get anything back from inmates. So about a month or so later, he came back with that book. And he handed it back to me. And he said I've been in prison on and off most of life, he said. And I've never read anything in my life, he said. And this is the first book I ever read. And he said I just want to thank you for that. And I have to say I really needed to thank him.

CONAN: Hmm. That's Alan Paton's book, of course, "Cry, The Beloved..."

PETER: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. And I - Avi, you taught creative writing both to male and female inmates and some - I have to say some of the poetry they wrote was pretty good.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah, I think so. I mean, people - there's something about poetry that - I mean, it's a cliche. We used to joke about it a little bit, that, you know, prison, you got to be a prison poet. I think, you know, people felt that way. But there is something about poetry itself that somehow fits, as a genre, that fits prison. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's the shortness and the concise way of just getting right to the point. You know, you can't mince words in there. And also - and because of the shortness, you know.

Prison, despite the fact you have all those time, actually, it's a very distracting place. It's kind of hard to concentrate. I'm very impressed by people who can read those long books. But there's something about poetry that just gets right to the heart of the matter. I think it fits that. So when I did offer poetry class, people signed up in huge numbers. Well, not huge, but big.

CONAN: There's - you described a group of female inmates as - well, you were using Hobbesian terms. One of them, of course, is nasty. And she wrote a haiku: Cell in late winter, skywriting to skinny dude, darkness in the yard.


CONAN: I like that. Skywriting is communicating with the male inmates who are in the yard and the women are up in the tower, and they write words out in the air to each other, and you have to be able to read stuff backwards.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah. I was - I mean, it was almost beautiful to watch, but it was actually just amazing to see. And people in buildings pretty far from each other doing this kind of dance in the window. And they would just, you know, there was some kind of conversations happening right - it was literally over your head. And you had no idea what it was, but it was happening. These conversations, incidentally, these window conversations, skywriting, would be referenced often in the kites, in those letters. So all these forms of communication were interlinked. Yeah.

CONAN: Peter, thanks very much for the call.

PETER: You're quite welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Avi Steinberg about his book "Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Tony's calling us. Tony is in Miami.

TONY (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead.

TONY: Yes. I was in the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, and I utilized the law library. All the time I was there and before I actually got into the prison system, due to little city facilities that I was in, and it allowed me to come out from a 40-year sentence and end up getting a five-year sentence. I had to represent myself, but I end up getting the 40 years off me and having to do five years.

CONAN: Congratulations. That's no small achievement.

TONY: It's people like this guy that helps you out in the law library and get you familiarized with the different legal books and terminology and writings that really helps out a lot for those who want to utilize it. You got guys who want to go to the rec yard or go to the, what it is, what to know what's on the commissary list new, or what have you. But these here type guys helped out a lot, man. It was one of the most educational experiences I ever had.

CONAN: Well, Tony, thanks very much for the call. And, again, congratulations.

TONY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Of course, it is required that prisoners have access to law books, so they could do exactly what Tony was talking about.

But here's a query by email from Megan in Moriches, New York: I'm a librarian at a public library. Censorship always is a professional concern. I was wondering what special measures, if any, were necessary in a prison library. We're taught as librarians never to censor and allow freedom of information always. But is this a problem in prison?

Mr. STEINBERG: Oh, it certainly is. I mean, it's an ongoing debate. And as I've done research while I worked there, and also in writing this book, yeah, it's one of those debates that goes right back to the beginning of reading in prison, especially reading secular books in prison, which goes back to the 19th century. There's no easy answer for it, because what is a prison library after all? Is it like a public library? You know, does that have that same kind of responsibility? Is it about exercising rights? Is it about education? What exactly is it?

And the truth is that there's differences of opinion on this. One thing that I discuss in my book is that there are also some things that people don't consider that wouldn't necessarily think about in terms of banning books. Usually, it's like - when it comes to banning books, it's violence. You know, we don't want to give someone who's violent a violent book. Therefore, you know, so it will be a blueprint for some kind of crime. These are on going things. There's actually something going on in Connecticut right now, where people think that a certain horrible murder was influenced by his reading of - potential reading of "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote. So usually it's a violent thing.

But there are other, less obvious problems, although this is a form of violence. One thing I described in my book is there's a certain inmate who was a big reader of Sylvia Plath, and, like I mentioned before, this was one of the crazes that happened in the prison library. There was a Sylvia Plath craze among the women . And, you know, as a librarian, you're excited when people are excited about books, especially great books, especially a great poet like Sylvia Plath, right?

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Mr. STEINBERG: But, of course, you know, a lot of Sylvia Plath readers are part of the suicide cult of Sylvia Plath. And, once again, people in a public library have a right to take out whatever they want. But here you're dealing with a vulnerable population. What is your responsibility to them? Are you a teacher or a librarian in a neutral way? It's not obvious.

CONAN: Avi Steinberg describes his responsibilities as a prison librarian in the new book "Running the Books." He joined us from a studio in Philadelphia.

Thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. STEINBERG: Oh, thank you.

Up next, Jason Beaubien, NPR's Mexico City correspondent, here in D.C. for a few days. We'll talk with him about the effects of four years of war with the drug cartels on both sides of the border.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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