What was the last book that you read that shocked you and why?
What does it mean to be shocked by something we read? I believe that ‘to be shocked’ is to encounter something that disturbs a long-accepted belief or some preconceived interpretation of a situation, an event, a time, or a place, fabricated or not. In short, our construct of ‘Reality’ is destroyed. This unpleasant sensation is opposite to ‘mimetic shock,’ or the sense that we’re encountering something what we already know and have experienced. We are not necessarily shocked by what we recognize, but we are shocked after we process it and assign it a word through our linguistic process. Naming comes after recognition. We can, and we do, take comfort from what we have forgotten; but visceral ‘shock’ does not allow that because it cajoles us, spurs us…unless we’ve become cynical and desensitized. My philosophical side thinks that we have become inured to what is shocking in the world because we are so inundated with what the intelligence community calls ‘noise’: a systematic assault on multiple senses, where ‘relevant’ is placed next to ‘irrelevant’ such that any pattern recognition or analysis is then thwarted by contradictions or falsehoods, often deliberate and manipulated. The daily news is but one example. A starlet’s poor choice of clothing is not news. The ‘fiscal cliff’ is news but best of wishes in finding a coherent explanation of what it is, why it exists, and any salient analysis of the proposed solutions. That’s ‘Reality’ in IRL. What about in reading?
Shock is a call to an ethical decision: accept a new perspective and change future decision because the experience has altered us. We are shocked when a journalistic piece exposes abuse and exploitation, whether it concerns animals, children, or workers. It is raw and it is human. We are shocked because we have implicitly accepted it as truthful. Journalism implies integrity and objectivity; and a small portion of us knows that ‘it’ does happen in the ‘real world.’ Are we shocked when journalism deliberately misleads us, lies to us, and distorts our thinking, and manipulates our emotions? False journalism destroys reputation and it kills. Truth has become a lie and the lie a truth about the world we live in. Should nonfiction be required to adhere to some ethical standard, or is it okay to simply say ‘creative nonfiction’ and include the disclaimer ‘based on real events’?
What does reading something shocking say about us? Stop and think about how complex the act of reading is. When we read a book, we take in glyphs on a page, reconfiguring and reconstructing language that someone else, possibly from some other era and place, has used to convey his or her construct of Reality. We call it fiction and we know it is a lie because it is Reality re-imagined. At the end of a few hundred pages where we have entrusted another with our senses, our emotions – a passage of precious time we rationalize as leisure entertainment, we are left with an experience, eminently forgettable, possibly moving, or shocking.
Take a step back in time. The introductory music to the sitcom ‘Happy Days’ was Bill Haley & His Comets’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (1954). Ignore the premise that the television series was an anachronistic spin off of the movie ‘American Graffiti’ (1973). ‘Happy Days’ is set in the mid-1950s, whereas ‘Graffiti’ starts in the summer of 1962. Cue back to the song, which is considered one of the first of many to have launched Rock and Roll. Shocking? No, but what is shocking is that the song was used in the 1955 film ‘Blackboard Jungle,’ which was shocking because it addressed juvenile delinquency, a major concern for post-War parents. ‘Blackboard Jungle’ was based on the Evan Hunter novel. I suspect most readers remember that other shocking film about delinquency, 1955’s ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ with the iconic James Dean, young Natalie Wood and the tragic Sal Mineo.
Laugh if you will about how shocking juvenile delinquency was portrayed in ‘Blackboard’ or ‘Rebel,’ but I want to draw your attention to another film and another book. The novel I have in mind portrays delinquency and an individual’s descent, and a family’s downward mobility, which is relevant today. The novel is Willard Motley’s Knock On Any Door (1947) and the film of the same name in 1949, directed by ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ director Nicholas Ray, produced by Humphrey Bogart’s fledging Santana Studio, which marked the film debut of John Derek. Ray would later direct Bogart in the adaptation of Dorothy Hughes‘s 1947 novel, In A Lonely Place, which consistently ranks in lists as definitive film noir. The Motley novel and its tale of poverty, desperation, and its portrait of penal ‘rehabilitation’ disturbed many, riled Chicagoans, and earned the author catcalls. The book was both praised and reviled.
But that is not what is shocking in Knock On Any Door. The painful arc of a former Italian-American altar boy with a future into hell is not what I consider shocking fiction. What is shocking is that an African-American writer wrote the story. Richard Wright had written Native Son (1940) and Ralph Ellison would write Invisible Man (1952), but both novels – powerful and canonical as they are – were written from the African-American perspective. Nick Romano is not Biggers Thomas, but he travels the same road and he suffers the same undignified fate. It wasn’t that Knock On Any Door was gritty — his contemporary Nelson Algren had also written naturalistic prose, and Steinbeck before him had written a social commentary when he had depicted the Depression in Grapes of Wrath.
Motley wrote outside of race. He dared to shock us. His creative act had required empathy and compassion that he or African-American writers were not given. I don’t know Willard Motley’s motivations when he wrote in Knock On Any Door but he would write a sequel, Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1958); but for me, he took an imaginative leap out of the confines of race and stereotype. As Martin Luther King Day and African-American History Month approach and the nation honors the enormous contributions African-American artists, inventors, musicians, and writers have made to this nation, I hope that people allow themselves to be shocked by this neglected writer who died in 1965 at the age of fifty-five. Mr. Motley was a class act and a first-rate writer in my estimation. In response to his critics, he said, “My race is the human race.”
Go knock on his door, find his books, and read him. What was the last book that shocked you and why?