Just when it seems everyone's reading the same book, Avi Steinberg reveals that the literary scene is even smaller in jail. The author worked as a librarian at a Boston prison, the setting of his debut memoir, Running the Books (Doubleday, $25), and here he lists what's hot in the clink.

Running the Books (Doubleday, $25)


Fiction
Triple Crown books
"We weren't supposed to carry urban street fiction like Amongst Thieves and A Hustler's Wife, but there was a black market I turned a blind eye to. I figured if it was going to exist anyway, they might as well have to come to the library to get it. It was about living vicariously. I mean, they were so desperate they lived vicariously through me, which is rock bottom."


Real Estate
Real Estate Investing for Dummies

"People asked for books on real estate. Always. Every day. This was before the economy collapsed and everything came to light as to what was going on. It was considered a good criminal enterprise to get into."


Self-Help
The Prince
, by Niccolò Machiavelli
"Machiavelli became popular because of Tupac; Makaveli was one of his monikers. People always asked for it. I'm not sure how much people really enjoyed it. It was very typical for people to want The Prince and then come back with it a day later and be like, 'No, thanks.' It's not the easiest read, because it was written in the 16th century."


Self-Help
The 48 Laws of Power
, by Robert Greene
"It was an easy jump from Machiavelli to this. It's basically an update of Machiavellian thinking, but in a very clear format. It explains the principles of how to manipulate people and get your way. We weren't supposed to carry it, but the inmates had printouts of it that they circulated among themselves. It did make me a little on edge when you get these bona fide violent criminals who are like, 'You must come to the battlefield early and destroy your enemy.' You or I might say that metaphorically, but it takes on a whole new meaning when a guy like that says it."


Poetry
Rumi
"There were these sort of crazes that would happen, where for a few weeks everyone would want this or that book. For a couple of weeks everyone wanted to read Rumi, the 13th-century mystic poet. Everyone! It was crazy. We had a few Rumi books, but I was printing out as many poems as I could. Everyone wanted to take it out so they could pick out a line or two and make tattoos out of it. And then people just stopped asking for Rumi. I don't know where that came from or why it ended."


Art
Frida Kahlo
"There was another craze—this was among the women—for Frida Kahlo. They wanted all these art books. I think it was partly a tattoo thing. It didn't break down in a Hispanic way. The women in general, I feel, were less divided by the whole racial thing in prison—which exists, it is real, but is less so with the women. Actually it's one of the main cultural differences between men and women in prison."


True Crime
"People were always asking for true crime. I'd just say we don't have any. We had [The Executioner's Song], we even had Truman Capote. People would read them, but it wasn't like they were flying off the shelf. Occasionally a good reader—or a desperate reader—would take to something like that.

"A number of people would come and ask me for books on serial killers and Jeffrey Dahmer and stuff. I'd be like, 'No, we don't have that... and I'll be keeping an eye on you.' This was mostly the white guys, for some reason."


New Age
"The other one that people were really interested in was dream interpretation. Freud, certainly, but once again you have the Machiavelli problem, so mostly people wanted newer stuff. It's actually an ancient prison genre—in the Bible, Joseph goes into prison and interprets dreams. I guess being in prison, you want to know where you're going and what's going to happen. And I think a lot of it was to impress other people, especially the opposite sex."

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