Book Recommendation: Flowers For Algernon


Posted on : 2/25/2013 07:00:00 AM | By : Dann | In :

Charlie Gordon.  Mentally handicapped.  Then a genius.

In "Flowers For Algernon", author Daniel Keyes presents a first person view of the life of someone who is marginalized by society due to his lack of mental ability.  He cannot remember without years of repetition.  And if he cannot remember, then he cannot repeat.  Nor can he consider his actions to see if they could be changed for the better.

Such are the challenges of some of our most marginalized citizens.

The book is Charlie's story told from his perspective.  It is written as a kind of journal that Charlie is keeping at the request of his doctor.  The spelling and grammar reflect that of a person who barely possesses the ability to write.  Charlie is an open, honest, trusting, and caring individual.  He wants to do well.

And he is treated by those around him with just about as much compassion and love as you might expect.

Until the surgery.  A team of doctors believes they have developed a means for improving intelligence.  They have tried it out on mice.  It seems to work quite well.

Charlie agrees to undergo the procedure.  And in the days and weeks to follow, he gets smarter.  He learns.

He learns how much he has been missing.  He reads voraciously.  Knowledge is assimilated at an astounding rated.

He also learns how poorly his "friends" have been treating him.

"Flowers For Algernon" was one of those books that you heard about when I was in school.  Being an avid science fiction fan, I saw the title several times and had always intended to read it.  Chance and happenstance had other ideas on the matter.

Fortunately, used book stores are a treasure trove of books that people have always been meaning to read.

"Flowers For Algernon" is one of those rare modern books that really should be more prominent in our school curriculum.  It is at turns an instruction on the importance of treating people properly regardless of their abilities, or lack thereof, as well as a thought provoking journey that should cause us to envision a wider world of "what if".

It is impossible to create that world of "what if" without first seeing it in our minds.

Spoilers after the break.

It is only as Charlie is reaching the peak of his mental ability that he learns that his partner is this experiment, a mouse named Algernon, has slipped.

Charlie's doctors had performed a similar procedure on Algernon.  They had achieved similar results.  Algernon had become very proficient at solving mazes.  They created all sorts of miscues and misdirections.  They would change the layout of the maze.  Algernon learned to solve all of those problems with great ease.

Until the day came when it took a little longer to find a solution.  And then the day came when he paused in apparent frustration over his inability to choose a path.  He seemingly knew that he once was able to solve such problems, but now could no longer do so.

This raises the question that is a twist on the adage that it is better to have loved and lost that love than to never have loved at all.

I find myself pausing to think a bit more these days.  Most of the time, these pauses are for the laudable purpose of gathering more information and perhaps a bit of perspective.  You might be excused for confusing these pauses with moments of rhetorical wisdom and reflection.

Then there are the times when I have a bit of trouble framing my thoughts in a cohesive narrative.  Having seen the path that my forbears trod, I am well and truly terrified.

Charlie Gordon.  Mentally handicapped.  Then a genius.  Then handicapped again.  Hamstrung by a mind that runs slower the body wills or the heart feels.

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Comments (2)

I read it decades ago and have never ceased to be blown away by writing that good. To portray Charlie's retreat back into mental handicap must have been *incredibly* difficult, delicate work. A heartbreaker of a story.

There's a movie that actually was well-received. I think Cliff Robertson won the 1968 Oscar for it

"Blown away" is a great description.

"Me too" and similar such comments!

The evolution of Charlie as presented in his own words and thoughts as opposed to an outsider's description was outstanding.