Lt. Col. Brian McNerney spends much of his free time sorting through cartons of donated books for his lending library at LSA Anaconda, Iraq.

Lt. Col. Brian McNerney spends much of his free time sorting through cartons of donated books for his lending library at LSA Anaconda, Iraq. (Anita Powell / S&S)

LOGISTICAL SUPPORT AREA ANACONDA, Iraq — Once upon a time, long, long ago, Iraqis boasted of their status as the world’s most avid readers with a proverb: Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads.

But decades of dictatorship, censorship and the tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s not-so-subtle allegorical novels have starved the nation’s bookshelves of new, interesting, diverse ideas.

Lt. Col. Brian McNerney hopes to fill some of Iraq’s empty shelves.

“My enemy is ignorance,” said McNerney, an avid reader who speaks at 100 miles an hour and dishes out book recommendations at a similar pace. “I think ignorance is more dangerous than terrorism.”

McNerney, a public affairs officer for the 3rd Corps Support Command of Wiesbaden, Germany, has spent the last six months soliciting book donations from two World War II infantry units that built libraries in post-war Germany.

Through donations from members of the 65th and 71st Infantry Divisions, he’s put together a robust library of about 12,000 volumes at the Black Hawk education center. He hopes to begin turning over the collection to local leaders in nearby Balad later this month.

He said he originally had some apprehensions about the arrogance of offering English-language materials to native Arabic speakers. Those concerns, he said, were immediately dismissed by the Balad City Council.

“I asked the city council, ‘I have all these books, they’re in English, is this something you want?’ ” he said. “They said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

The first donation will consist of medical texts for a local hospital, and National Geographic magazines and Reader’s Digest condensed books for the Balad city library.

In the future, McNerney hopes, the entire collection — minus the saucy romance novels and religious literature, which could be considered offensive to Muslim sensibilities — will find its way into Iraqi hands.

Until then, the collection serves as an informal lending library for troops stationed near Balad.

The library has gained a following among soldiers on base, said library patron and Blackhawk Education Center director Maj. Chris Jackson, a Missouri National Guardsman.

“It’s an exercise in learning,” said Jackson, who is a high school principal in St. James, Mo., “and also in different points of view.”

The shelves carry a wide array of titles. There are the downrange library standards: an entire shelf of dusty James Michener sagas, boxes filled with Harlequin romances (not on the shelves, so you have to ask), the usual rows of mysteries and self-help books of every type.

But there are surprises, too, in the robust literature section. The ponderous tomes of Italian writer/philosopher Umberto Eco sit among other heavyweights: Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and ancient poets Homer and Virgil.

In the diverse political section, conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh cozies up to feminist Susan Faludi. Vietnam-era New York Times writer David Halberstam shares shelf space with former Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh and America’s ultra-conservative sweetheart, Ann Coulter.

“Unfit for Command,” which seeks to detail the inadequacies of presidential candidate John Kerry, is just an arm’s reach away from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s “Bushworld,” a scathing indictment of the commander-in-chief.

McNerney said he made no effort to tailor the library’s content.

“A library is a repository of free ideas,” he said. “We should be free enough to accept any idea in a library, however outrageous.”

And there are some oddballs in the bunch: an encyclopedia of spices, a pregnancy guide called “What to Eat When You’re Expecting,” several cookbooks and obscure, out-of-date magazines.

But McNerney said he hopes even the duds find a happy ending.

“If one soldier came here one day and picked up one book and read one sentence in that book, and that sentence was useful to them,” he said, “then this library has served its purpose.”

McNerney must-reads

Lt. Col. Brian McNerney ranks the following books as his top-five must-reads for all U.S. soldiers.

“Slaughterhouse-Five: Or The Children’s Crusade, A Duty Dance With Death,” by Kurt Vonnegut.“We Were Soldiers Once... And Young: Ia Drang — The Battle That Changed The War in Vietnam,” by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway.“The Execution of Private Slovik,” by William Bradford Huie.“A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” by Samantha Power.“The Forgotten Soldier,” by Guy Sajer.—Anita Powell

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