Sex, Violence and Devils: Ten Books That Shocked the World

Book on fire
Book on fire

When I was a kid, I had a very forward thinking science teacher who assigned the seventh grade class a very provocative book. Brave New World, it was called. I went home that night and told my (equally forward thinking, it turned out) mother about the assignment -- and she dutifully went to the store the next day to buy the book for me.

Not every parent behaved so well. One of my friends' mothers -- let's call her Nutty -- not only refused to buy Aldous Huxley's classic, but also made several furious calls to the faculty to protest this "outrageous" assignment. "It's anti-religious," she claimed. It also had sex in it, she said (now I was really interested), and some worrisome politics. My mother called it "satirical." Nutty had other words for it. "It's shocking," she declared.

I'm proud to report that my mother took Nutty on, defended our teacher, and made sure a roomful of seventh graders would not be Huxley-deprived. More important, she ensured that I'd never be put off a book because someone called it shocking. (Thanks, Mom.) In fact, I'd go out of my way to collect and read anything that inspires controversy.

Here, then is my list of the 10 most shocking books of all time, or at least the last century or so.

Lady Chatterley's Lover: While it may seem tame by today's standards, D.H. Lawrence's classic tale of a gamekeeper and a Lady was so outrageous on the topics of sex and class that it wasn't allowed to be published legally in this country until 1959, 30 years after it first surfaced in Europe.

Brave New World: One of the original dystopian novels, Aldous Huxley's 1932 satire was just as Mr. Beck and my mother knew: a fascinating imagining of a future world full of psychological manipulation and more. It clearly paved the way for another book that would surely have equally offended Ms. Nutty: George Orwell's 1949 classic, 1984, starring Big Brother.

Lolita: Is it pedophilia or just great literature? Since its first American publication in 1958, most critics and scholars have decided that this novel by Vladimir Nabokov is both, with emphasis on the latter. Nevertheless, a middle-aged man's sexual reminiscences of his teenaged stepdaughter might still shock the PC police today.

Even my father had Portnoy's Complaint on his bedside table -- and he didn't usually read novels! Philip Roth's 1969 novel with the refreshingly direct bright-yellow cover was about being young, Jewish and sexual. Very sexual.

Rosemary's Baby: To think that actual devils roamed Manhattan's Upper West Side was shocking enough in 1967, but that they recruited actors to impregnate innocent housewives?! That was the premise of Ira Levin's hugely successful novel that became a movie starring Mia Farrow a few years later. What was also shocking about this one: it managed to be funny AND scary social satire, all at once.

The Exorcist: Yes, Linda Blair's head did seem like it rotated 360 degrees in the movie version, but even the 1971 book by William Peter Peter Blatty caused some whiplash: its depiction of the Catholic Church and religion in general had clergy up in arms. Readers, however, seem plenty happy. "It's one of the best horror stories ever written," Amazon customer Mary Monroe wrote last year.

Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, Erica Jong's Fear of Flying was called everything from "energetic" and "well-conceived" to just plain "dirty." But this Columbia University-trained poet's novel about a thirty something woman in charge of her own sexuality was groundbreaking for over 20 million readers worldwide. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jong about what her book means to several generations.

American Psycho: Bret Easton Ellis's novel is -- depending on whom you ask -- either a critique of our name-brand society or a manipulator of the same. In any case, it was dropped by its original publisher in 1990 and eventually appeared to mixed (but passionate) reviews, was made into a (controversial) movie and may soon become a major theater production.

Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone is shocking in its unflinching descriptions of the author's experience as a boy soldier in his native Sierra Leone. Beah's 2007 memoir, now taught in secondary and high schools around the country, is both a riveting and cautionary tale.

The Fifty Shades of Gray series. Ever heard of it? What began as self-published, online "fan fiction" has sold over 70 million copies since the first book in the trilogy was published in 2011. It's an unabashed tale of dominance, submission -- and shopping.