Flowers for Algernon

Bookshelf , 13 June 2015

Flowers For Algernon / Daniel Keyes

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This story is told in a series of reports written by Charlie Gordon, a subject of a test that aims to increase intelligence by artificial means. Charlie’s IQ at the opening of the book is measured at 68, a low intelligence that is reflected in his writing style and in his perception of those around him.

As the effects of the test take hold, Charlie’s intelligence soars. He is unable to hide or suppress the enormous shift in his understanding and finds the truth of his old situation a heavy load to bear. Equally, he enjoys finding new realms of human relationships to explore, particularly in the case of his former teacher, Mrs Kinnian.

As Charlie’s capabilities surpass those of even the scientists who engineered the change, he notices that that Algernon, the eponymous mouse on whom the test was first carried out, is experiencing a decline. Charlie is faced with the near certainty that he, too, will lose his borrowed intelligence.

Uncomfortable observations of the relationship between happiness and intelligence and the treatment of the mentally disabled form a thread through Charlie’s reports. I finished the book unsurprised that it was banned in many American schools and has repeatedly been challenged as unsuitable for school students. I beg to differ – this book should absolutely be read by those with minds that are pliable and I’d suggest anyone wanting to reexamine their attitudes towards intelligence, ambition and the uneven and random distribution of gifts read this book pronto.

‘That’s the thing about human – there is no control group, no way to ever know how any of us would have turned out if any variables had been changed.’

‘I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.’

‘It’s easy to make frends if you let pepul laff at you.’

‘Now I understand that one of the important reasons for going to college and getting an education is to learn that the things you’ve believed in all your life aren’t true, and that nothing is what it appears to be.’

‘I’m living at a peak of clarity and beauty I never knew existed. Every part of me is attuned to the work. I soak it up into my pores during the day, and at night—in the moments before I pass off into sleep—ideas explode into my head like fireworks. There is no greater joy than the burst of solution to a problem. Incredible that anything could happen to take away this bubbling energy, the zest that fills everything I do. It’s as if all the knowledge I’ve soaked in during the past months has coalesced and lifted me to a peak of light and understanding. This is beauty, love, and truth all rolled into one. This is joy.’

‘Strange about learning; the farther I go the more I see that I never knew even existed. A short while ago I foolishly thought I could learn everything – all the knowledge in the world. Now I hope only to be able to know of its existence, and to understand one grain of it. Is there time?’

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, £5.99 at foyles.co.uk

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