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Mark Spragg

It was "unfortunate" at best and censorship at worst, say those who have learned that the Salt Lake County Library System canceled the speaking engagement of an acclaimed author whose book was pulled from the library's "One County, One Book" reading program.

Author Mark Spragg, who wrote "An Unfinished Life," was notified in late January that his book had been selected as Salt Lake County's choice for its program. At the same time, he was invited to speak at October activities to culminate the event.

Spragg, who lives in Cody, Wyo., accepted the invitation and was thrilled, he said in an interview Thursday. But two weeks later, he got an e-mail he described as rather curt and "not particularly apologetic," saying the offer had been rescinded.

Library system employee Susan Hamada wrote that she'd been "directed to select an alternate title."

"An Unfinished Life," published in 2004, was also made into a movie of the same title in 2005, starring Academy Award-winning actors Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman.

"Spragg unfolds a marvelous, unsentimental family story," wrote Claire Dederer in the New York Times Book Review. "The peace these hard characters make for themselves is sweet and difficult and very satisfying."

"Mark Spragg's novel 'An Unfinished Life' moves from the pain of loss to the possibility of reconciliation, as a good Western should," according to the Oregonian newspaper. "'An Unfinished Life's' strength lies in its characters."

"Spragg draws wonderful portraits," said a Library Journal review. "Highly recommended."

But apparently at least one local librarian found rough language in the book objectionable — although that was only one reason why a library system administrator said he re-evaluated a decision to choose the novel for the program and then deemed it not "appropriate for our audience."

Jim Cooper, director of county libraries, first said a county staffer "jumped the gun" on informing Spragg his novel had been selected. Cooper later conceded he'd overridden a decision by an "informal" committee that chose the book.

"I decided that another book would be more appropriate for our audience and for the time," Cooper said.

The goal of the program is to encourage county residents to "get on the same page" by reading and discussing the same book, according to library Web sites. From April to October, libraries make the books available and encourage communities to read and discuss the material.

A committee of five or six chose "An Unfinished Life" this year. One thousand copies were purchased so libraries under the county umbrella would have plenty.

Cooper said he was not in on the initial decision, but after re-evaluating the amount of exposure given to the book in promotions and other community programs, decided to go with a novel that was "a little fresher."

Cooper acknowledged that one male librarian did ask him about the language he'd heard on an audio version of the book, but that wasn't why he bounced it.

"It is not a censorship issue," he said.

But Spragg says — and sources close to the details privately confirm — there was scrutiny from library system officials about rough scenes in the book involving a character named Roy, who is a violent person, a batterer and uses obscene language.

One bookseller with contacts in the publishing business said a New York literary agent told her Salt Lake City is the "laughing stock" of the publishing world.

Spragg himself called the situation "utterly regrettable."

"There is a moment of personal disappointment for me, but that's not what this is about," he said.

He's always considered the American Library Association a "brave, ethically sound institution in this country." The Association challenged a section of the U.S. Patriot Act that would have compromised readers' rights of privacy. When a community in the southern United States wanted to ban all books by gay and lesbian authors, the Association came to the defense of readers and authors.

"But when a library all of the sudden acts as a vetting process, that is not acceptable," he said.

In the past month, word has spread through the bookselling community and library system. Three librarians at various county branches contacted by the Deseret Morning News knew of the issue and found the library system's actions "in bad taste," as one person said. All refused to be identified, fearing repercussions.

"This is such a black mark on our city," said Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English bookstore in Salt Lake City.

Spragg believes the decision about the book was reversed because someone complained about his Roy character's actions and language.

"They made assumptions about the audience," Spragg said. "I don't think the Mormon population would find this book off-putting at all."

Beyond that, he said, "You don't ask someone to dance, then say 'You're too unsightly,' when they stand up from the table."

One person who learned about the fiasco around Spragg's invitation called it embarrassing and "uncivil."

"It is unfortunate," Cooper said of inviting, then uninviting, Spragg. He said he is sorry for the upset, but Cooper hasn't called the author to apologize himself. He said he hasn't heard from Spragg.

"The Life of Pi," will now be the One County, One Book selection, Cooper said.

Spragg is also the author of "Where Rivers Change Direction," a memoir and winner of the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award, and "The Fruit of Stone," a novel. Both were top-ten Book Sense selections according to book-selling Web sites.

E-mail: lucy@desnews.com