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Banned in Bel Air

LiteratureLibrariesFictionCensorshipD.H. LawrenceVladimir Nabokov

When a book flies off the shelves by the millions within a month of publication and zooms to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, it's safe to assume that whatever its literary merit (or lack thereof), it probably is not a good candidate for censorship. When a title is "hot," so to speak, everybody wants to read it.

For better or worse, that seems to be the case with British author E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey," which reviewers describe as a steamy tale of kinky sex that makes the usual exemplars of the bodice-ripping romance genre seem tame by comparison. Local libraries around the country have been scrambling to keep up with demand after record numbers of readers requested the title (and its two sequels).

But sorry — if you live in Harford County, you're just out of luck. In deference to the delicate sensibilities of local residents, library officials there have refused to circulate a book they say is way too racy for their family-oriented clientele. Not only won't they buy the book for their readers, they won't even borrow a copy from other jurisdictions that have it. To patrons who request it, they politely suggest checking a copy out from the Sodom and Gomorrah that is the rest of Central Maryland.

This sort of prissy high-mindedness would be laughable if the issue weren't so serious, and not only because Harford County seems to be the only subdivision in the state to enforce such a ban. What it comes down to is an arbitrary exercise of government power to squelch ideas that someone in authority doesn't like.

Or put it this way: Public libraries absolutely have no business banning books simply because they don't approve of what's in them. The mere threat of such casual censorship is more dangerous than anything that might be contained between the covers of a novel, even a risque one.

What is truly strange is the capriciousness of the library's decision, given that it circulates other works that are equally if not even more suggestive than Ms. James.' "Lady Chatterley's Lover," the 1928 novel by D.H. Lawrence, was considered so scandalous that authorities banned it in the U.S. until 1959. Yet it appears in the Harford County library's online catalog. So does Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," a work so unconventional that one critic denounced it as "the filthiest book I have ever read" and "sheer unrestrained pornography" when it was published in France in 1955.

Both books, of course, are now considered classics of 20thcentury literature. But such judgments were impossible to even guess at when they first appeared, simply because few were allowed to read them. Hardly anyone today seriously thinks either novel poses a mortal threat to the republic, and they're routinely taught in college literature courses. We should have learned by now that suppressing books, be they religious texts, political and historical tracts or fanciful works of fiction, rarely makes us safer. It only leaves us more ignorant of our own and others' possibilities.

Clearly, some books are not appropriate for 12-year-olds, and "Fifty Shades of Grey" almost certainly is one of them. It's a librarian's job to screen what's available on the shelves for young readers, and that responsibility must be taken seriously. But adults are perfectly capable of making up their own minds about whether a book is worth reading, and they should be free to make that choice without interference from the self-appointed censors at their local public library.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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