Daniel Keyes – Flowers for Algernon

I stumbled upon this classic when I was making my way thorugh Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Praised as equally good but somehow not as present (at least in my school), this book intrigued me from the beginning. The blurb alone was enough to get me hooked. And the first sentence sealed the deal. I have recommended Flowers for Algernon numerous times, especially to people who otherwise don’t read at all. Nobody’s complained yet.

by Daniel Keyes

published: Gollancz 2006 (1966)
pages: 224
copy: paperback

my rating: 8/10

first sentence: Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on.

Following his doctor’s instructions, engaging simpleton Charlie Gordon tells his own story in semi-literate “progris riports.” He dimly wants to better himself, but with an IQ of 68 can’t even beat the laboratory mouse Algernon at maze-solving. Algernon is extra-clever thanks to an experimental brain operation so far tried only on animals. Charlie eagerly volunteers as the first human subject. After frustrating delays and agonies of concentration, the effects begin to show and the reports steadily improve: “Punctuation, is? fun!” But getting smarter brings cruel shocks, as Charlie realizes that his merry “friends” at the bakery where he sweeps the floor have all along been laughing at him, never with him. The IQ rise continues, taking him steadily past the human average to genius level and beyond, until he’s as intellectually alone as the old, foolish Charlie ever was – and now painfully aware of it. Then, ominously, the smart mouse Algernon begins to deteriorate…

It’s fascinating, really, to see what Daniel Keyes did with this idea. Charlie Gordon is telling his own story in his own words. And at the beginning of his progress reports, those words are not very clever or, indeed, spelled correctly. I loved seeing not only through the story but through these reports how Charlie becomes more and more intelligent. His spelling improves, he uses more and more difficult words and talks about topics that are more scientific, more intellectually challenging.

Soon Charlie has to see what the readers realized all along. That the few people he thought were his friends were never laughing with him but about him. That a scene of bullying could be so emotionally wrecking came as a bit of a surprise to me. I didn’t expect to be so touched and feel so bad about it. But Charlie really grows on you as a charcter. Even when his abilities far outdo anything I could ever aspire to, he remained a little boy when it came to social situations. He may have developed the mind of an academic but he notices for the very first time that his former teacher isn’t a scarily smart being but also a woman, and that he might be interested in her for other reasons…

Reading this book astounded me and broke my heart. Charlie’s progress took me through so many emotions, I can hardly remember which ones I didn’t feel. The novel is both a wonderful story and a piece on the importance of intelligence. At the point where the title is explained in the book, I was basically in tears. But even after closing this book, it kept me thinking for a long time. About what’s important, what makes a human, and whether knowledge really is power. I have always thought and still thinkg that but this book shows you that sometimes it just might be better being left oblivious, if it gives you a chance at happiness…

THE GOOD: Draws you in and doesn’t let you go. You can’t stop reading Charlie’s reports and being astonished at how smart he’s getting.
THE BAD: There is a slightly less driven part of the story around the middle bit. But hey, in such a slim volume that’s really nothing.
THE VERDICT: Fantastic book that should be read by everyone, especially kids in schools. Never preaches, just makes you think for yourself and see things from a completely different perspective.

RATING: 8/10 Excellent book, worth 8 lab mice

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