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Public libraries in 3 states ban popular trilogy of erotic novels

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.

"Fifty Shades of Grey," by E L James, a novel about bondage, wild sex and yes, love, has been called "mommy porn" because of its popularity among middle-aged women.

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.

"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, none of the 15 library branches will carry the book.

"We do not collect erotica at Gwinnett County Public Library. That's part of our materials management collection policy," said Deborah George, the county library's director of materials management.

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 Henry Miller's steamy "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 nontraditional 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.

Because of the books' popularity on tablets, Vintage Books, a division of Random House Inc., acquired the rights and published them April 3.

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 cliche."

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."