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Tamara Lush, Associated Press, Published May 09 2012

‘Fifty Shades’ too steamy for some library shelves, but no local plans to ban book

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Public libraries in several states are pulling the racy romance trilogy “Fifty Shades of Grey” from shelves or deciding not to order the best-seller at all, saying it’s too steamy or too poorly written.

Even in the age of e-books and tablets, banning a book from a public library still carries weight because libraries still play such a vital role in providing people access to books.

“When a book is removed from the shelf, folks who can’t afford a Nook or a Kindle, the book is no longer available to them,” said Deborah Caldwell Stone, the deputy director of the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom.

The Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead libraries have no plans to ban the books at this time.

“Fifty Shades of Grey,” a novel about bondage, wild sex and yes, love, has been called “mommy porn” because of its popularity among middle-aged women. It has become so well-known that “Saturday Night Live” performed a skit about it, joking that a Kindle with “Fifty Shades” uploaded on it was the perfect Mother’s Day gift.

This week, the steamy books hold the top three spots on the New York Times best-seller list.

Libraries in Wisconsin, Georgia and Florida have all either declined to order the book or pulled it from shelves. Other states may soon follow.

“It’s semi-pornographic,” said Don Walker, a spokesman for Brevard County, Fla., where the library put 19 copies of the book on the shelves then pulled the novel after reading reviews about it. Some 200 notices had to go out to people on a waiting list to read it.

Librarians in at least four Florida counties have declined to buy the book – even though hundreds of people have requested it. Reasons range from not having the money to poor reviews.

“It doesn’t suit our community standards,” said Cay Hohmeister, director of libraries for Leon County – where Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, is located.

In Gwinnett County, Ga., a suburb northeast of Atlanta, all 15 library branches will not carry the book.

“We do not collect erotica at Gwinnett County Public Library. That’s part of our materials management collection policy. So, E L James’ three books in the trilogy fit that description,” said Deborah George, the county library’s director of materials management.

A copy of “Fifty Shades” sits on George’s cluttered desk. Wedged in it are nearly a dozen yellow sticky notes at various pages of sultriness.

Books with sexual content, and just as controversial as “Fifty Shades,” have long been – at least for a time – banned during their debuts. Gwinnett County, Ga., carries about a million books in its system, including the steamy passages from Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and Vladimir Nabokov’s provocative “Lolita.” These and other novels have gone on to reach best-seller lists quickly, and some are taught in public classrooms.

Library collections should be diverse, the American Library Association said, but should also reflect what people want to read. And decisions on what to buy shouldn’t be based on content alone – budgetary constraints, shelf space and bad reviews all come into play.

A book’s provenance also can make a difference. Some libraries have policies against acquiring self-published books or books published by non-traditional means.

The “Fifty Shades” trilogy took a non-traditional route to its paperback form: the author self-published in e-reader form, and many people felt comfortable reading it on tablets because those devices kept the novel mostly private, unlike a hardcover book. It was also published by a small press in print-on-demand trade paperback editions.

Because of the books e-popularity, Vintage Books, a division of Random House Inc., acquired the rights and published them April 3. So far, the books have sold 3 million copies in all formats, the publisher said, though it wasn’t clear how many were in paperback.

Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Random House, said Brevard County is engaging in censorship by taking the book off the shelves.

“We believe the Brevard County Public Library System is indulging in an act of censorship, and essentially is saying to library patrons: ‘We will judge what you can read,’” Bogaards wrote in an email.

Caldwell Stone said other libraries are in a gray area – no pun intended.

“All libraries have to make these kinds of decisions,” Caldwell Stone said. “It’s so hard to judge the decision to acquire or not acquire the book.”

Reviews of the book have been mixed. While The Guardian of London called it “jolly” and “eminently readable,” the U.K. newspaper The Telegraph said the writing was “appalling,” “hackneyed” and readers would have to wade through “pages of treacly cliché.”

Hohmeister said those kinds of reviews went into her decision not to buy the book for libraries around Tallahassee.

“It has not received what we would consider good reviews,” she said. “It doesn’t meet our selection criteria.”

Associated Press writer Ron Harris contributed to this report from Lawrenceville, Ga.