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Discoveries: 'Running the Books,' 'Travels in Siberia'

'In the joint, they call me Bookie." They also call Avi Steinberg "the main book man. I like that. I can't help it. For an asthmatic Jewish kid, it's got a nice ring to it."

There's nothing elitist about a prison library, he tells us in "Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26). "To gain entrance, one need only commit a felony." A disappointment to his parents ("big time Orthodox failure") and their community, Steinberg wrote his senior thesis on Bugs Bunny, somehow got into Harvard and graduated with a stalled novel loosely titled "Easy Go." Tired of writing freelance obits, to get health care he took a job running a prison library in Boston. Characters abound: There are his fellow librarians (Dice, Boat, Fat Kat), the inmates "OG, young G, boo, bro, baby boy, brutha, dude, cuz, dawg, P, G, daddy, pimpin' " as well as the Hobbes girls (three neck-scarred writers in Steinberg's creative writing class at the library nicknamed "Nasty," "Brutish" and "Short").

Steinberg's job isn't easy, but he finds material for a lifetime. Months into the job, Steinberg is mugged on his way home from a movie. The mugger recognizes the "book man," takes his $43 anyway and calls out across the park: "Hey . . . I still owe you guys two books." I haven't laughed this hard since David Sedaris' "Me Talk Pretty One Day." Like Sedaris, Steinberg's utter failure to take literature seriously shows how indispensable it is to human life.

Ian Frazier calls it his midlife crisis - in 1993, in his early 40s, he makes his first trip to Russia and falls in love with the entire country, but especially with Siberia. Its very name in Russian, he writes, "Siber - is pure onomatopoeia. A shiver begins with the first letter and concludes with the paralyzed r at the end." Frazier carries this tone of childlike wonder and delight throughout "Travels in Siberia" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30), his book on this region that contains 39 million people and covers one-twelfth of all the land on Earth (the United States and Europe could fit inside it, he writes proudly in the early pages).

For Frazier, who grew up in New Jersey and writes for The New Yorker magazine, Siberia is more than a metaphor: "Looking up at the clarity of the night sky in Siberia, you feel that you are in the sky yourself." The smell of Russia: diesel fuel, "cucumber peels, and old tea bags, and sour milk, and a sweetness - currant jam, or mulberries crushed into the waffle treads of heavy boots - and fresh wet mud, and a lot of wet cement." While American crows and ravens have a "shifty, raffish, troublemaking quality," in Russia they are "somehow more grave . . . as if they know that all things will come to them in time." He is besotted, happy, free, on high-alert, drunk with space. Perhaps Russians are such good dancers, he thinks, because they exist in such an enormous country. Frazier expands to fill the space, and his awe is contagious.

André Schiffrin represents old-school publishing, in the best sense of the phrase. Publishing work that inspired cultural conversation first at Pantheon for 30 years and then at the New Press, Schiffrin has been the sophisticated voice of reason at many conferences about book publishing around the world. Ten years ago, his book "The Business of Books" sparked heated debates on the fate of publishing, the role of conglomerates in the downfall of the industry and the importance of independent bookstores and publishers to a vibrant American culture. (New York, he notes in his new book, had 333 bookshops in 1945; now there are "fewer than thirty, including the chain stores.")

In "Words & Money" (Verso, $23.95), Schiffrin looks at examples of media industries around the world, particularly France, where he spends half his time, but also Norway, Spain and other countries. In successful, thriving publishing communities, Schiffrin writes, it takes a village (government and local support of bookstores and publishers) to compete with the pressure from conglomerates, who demand profit margins five times higher than the traditional three or four percent most publishers survived on for much of the 20th century. It's a calm voice, but sorrowful, even as he recommends solutions and examples from other countries. There is a quality of resignation here when Schiffrin writes that "the paths are open. It is for us to choose to follow them."

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