GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Packed with 19,000 books purchased by the U.S. military or provided by the International Red Cross, Guantánamos prison camp library has long been a source of fascination and sometimes controversy.
A few years back, librarians would boast that the Harry Potter series was in steady circulation then add, as a punch line, that The Prisoner of Azkaban was a particular favorite.
In 2009, after the library prison refused a Pentagon lawyers donation of Noam Chomskys Interventions, an accompanying rejection slip offered a window into what is taboo: Material espousing Anti-American, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Western ideology, military topics, and works that portray excessive graphic violence and sexual dysfunctions were forbidden.
The approved list included poetry, fiction, art, math, history, religion, politics and current events plus chemistry, physics and electronics books, which may strike some as strange for a place that the United States says imprisons wannabe bomb makers and hijackers.
John Grisham recently captured attention by condemning an apparently arbitrary decision to prevent a long-ago cleared Moroccan captive from reading his books. And commanders at Guantánamos secret camp, called Camp 7, recently sowed confusion by citing Fifty Shades of Grey as popular among former CIA captives a book laced with erotic and sadomasochistic themes that the library said was forbidden.
Censorship aside, the library is like any other: Its intended to amuse, distract or enlighten some of the most reviled men in U.S. custody the 166 captives at the prison camps who range in age from their 20s to their 60s and include some with college degrees.
Theres a new chapter in the story of the library that is tucked inside two trailers behind rows of barbed wire: Earlier this year a man whose father was killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11 made an anonymous donation of about 70 new books.
He was visiting the base for a war crimes hearing in the 9/11 case. He stuffed the books inside the two suitcases the Pentagon permits each so-called victim family member who is brought to watch the death-penalty proceedings against accused mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators.
A prison camps chaplain delivered the gift, two boxes of mostly soft-covered, undeniably great works of literature without comment or explanation.
Name a classic you read in school and its probably there from John Steinbeck to William Shakespeare to Mark Twain. Also, four novels by Haruki Murakami, who happens to be the donors favorite author. About half are in Arabic or are dual Arabic-English side-by-side translations.
Some titles might suggest a subliminal message for an indefinite detainee in the war-on-terror Charles Dickens Hard Times, Gabriel Garcia Marquezs One Hundred Years of Solitude and Ernest Hemingways A Farewell to Arms.
But the donor only agreed to discuss his donation mostly cryptically and with the condition that he not be identified because The Miami Herald had pressed him for an explanation.
Books, he said, had provided him a sense of escape and solace at times of loss.
He described dark periods after 9/11 his dads violent death, the subsequent search for remains, then the death of his mother five years later after a grinding battle with cancer. He found relief, he said, with friends, family and the momentary escape provided by a book.
As for the prisoners, he said: Regardless of what they did and I believe they are in fact guilty I have a choice: I can either try to help another human escape from darkness or I can look away and do nothing. And I chose to help.
He would not say how much he spent on the books, just that he got them from four vendors, one an online Arabic-language bookseller.
He went shopping once he learned hed been chosen in the Pentagons lottery to peer through soundproofed glass at the back of Guantánamos maximum-security courtroom to see Mohammed and four other men accused of conspiring in the plot that killed his father and 2,975 other people.
At each shop, he said, he enlisted the help of an employee. One bookseller confided that shed lost a soldier son in Iraq and, knowing that the collection was bound for Guantánamo, added her favorite Seabiscuit. Its the only nonfiction book in the collection, and was written by Laura Hillenbrand, one of 10 women whose works are represented.
The literature was processed like any other incoming books primarily to review for notes, contraband material, said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the prisons spokesman. He noted for the record that the military was not soliciting books from the general public for the detainees and the Pentagon already had about 25,000 items in its collection.
At the library, an Army lieutenant who would not give his name, called the collection mostly old classic novels that seem like legitimate, good quality books. They arrived in mint condition no torn bindings, scratches and were being marked like any others to start circulating among the offerings late this summer.
All passed inspection but one: Stephen Kings It, an epic horror novel about a monster that lurks in some Maine sewers. It includes a sex scene between a 12-year-old girl and five boys of about the same age, one after another, and was rejected after weeks of consideration for circulation by the Guantánamo prison library.
Editors note: A day after publication of this article in the Aug. 18 Miami Herald, a prison camps spokeswoman said the library reversed its decision and accepted the gift copy of 'It' because the novel was already part of the collection.