CHICAGO — THE WRITTEN word inspires, educates, enlightens. Books provide insights about people, places and beliefs beyond readers' immediate environs. Books inform about other worlds, other cultures, sparking the imagination and providing seeds for new ideas. Books challenge, presenting disquieting thoughts that force intellectual and spiritual growth.
Yet, when books do ''work,'' some people consider them dangerous.
For some, the disquieting thoughts, the imaginative ideas, the view into other worlds should be monitored and controlled. These ''books that work'' should be hidden, removed, even destroyed, to protect us from their distressing ''work.''
Throughout history, books have been burned and banned; works by many of the world's greatest writers have fallen prey to censorship -- Homer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Joyce: the list is a very long one. Great works of religious literature including The Bible, The Talmud and The Koran also have been banned.
No subject is safe from censorship. Celebrated American writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thomas Paine to Mark Twain, Jack London, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald have been banned, as have popular authors like Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King.
When people target a book for censorship, the reasons they give depend on which issues they see as harmful or threatening and how they interpret what they read. Steinbeck's classic ''Of Mice and Men'' has been censored for ''profanity,'' Webster's Dictionary for an ''objectionable'' definition of sexual intercourse, Noel Coward's ''Blithe Spirit'' for encouraging ''occult activities,'' Langston Hughes' ''The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers'' for being ''immoral, anti-American, anti-Christian,'' or just plain ''filthy.''
Parents have objected to books dealing with rebellion, sexual references, drug use and crime. Feminists have objected to gender stereotypes and atheists to biblical references. In the 19th century, ''The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' was challenged for poking fun at conventional morality -- and for bad grammar. Today the novel is attacked by civil-rights groups for its allegedly demeaning portrayal of blacks.
Access to a diversity of ideas is the cornerstone of a free people. Our libraries are a vital means of providing that access.
The Freedom to Read Statement, endorsed by the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers and many other organizations, states: ''We believe . . . that what people read is deeply important, that ideas can be dangerous, but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.''
This week we mark Banned Books Week. It is, says Judith F. Krug, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, ''an occasion to invite a great diversity of voices into our 'dangerous' way of freedom. Our bookstores and our library shelves should be opened to a flood of facts and fiction, of philosophies and holy writings and myths and histories and folk tales, of treatises and critiques, diatribes and artworks that will broaden our perspectives and give us a greater understanding of the world around us.''
Banned Books Week reminds us that imposing information restraints on a free people is more dangerous than any ideas expressed in the information itself. In an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, even ideas or opinions that we find offensive or insulting can be useful to our understanding of others -- as long as we are not afraid to read, think and speak about them openly.
In the words of John F. Kennedy, ''We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.''
Linda Wallace works in the information office of the American Library Association.