Book Review: Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon CoverI had honestly not even heard of this book until recently. I used to be embarrassed when my ignorance of a book was revealed. After all, I consider myself well-read and if there’s a famous book out there I should have at least heard of it. Recently, though, I realized that no matter how old I live to be, I’m probably not going to be able to read all the books I want to. That blasted “to-read” shelf on my GoodReads page just keeps getting longer. So, I’ve come to terms with my ignorance.

Speaking of ignorance, this book is rife with it. Charlie Gordon is a 32 year old with an I.Q. of 65. He works at a during the day bakery and at night he goes to a special school aimed at helping guys and gals like him. It is this sturdy work ethic and desire to learn that makes him eligible for an experiment. Charlie is subjected to an operation that will make him smarter. The eponymous Algernon is a mouse that has undergone the same procedure with remarkable results. But soon the question of whether or not the doctors waited long enough before conducting human trials is hinted at fairly early on.

The book is broken down into progress reports written by Charlie. The pre-operation chapters are written in a child-like fashion with extremely simply syntax.  There are enough spelling mistakes and blatant disregard for grammar that the stickler in me cringes. In fact, those early chapters are actually titled “Progris Riports”. But these  grade-school level reports have the desired affect and Charlie instantly earns your sympathy. Soon after the operation, the spelling and grammar improve. The sentence structure also gets much more complex. In a hilarious chapter, the fast-learning Charlie learns about punctuation. He then, pro?ceeds, to” comm;it Acroc!ties. such ,,,, as thi(s). I literally laughed out loud. True story. 

Soon he is doing such things as reading German and debating with top economic professors. The operation is gloriously successful and his I.Q. raises some 100 points. That’s when a little thought of characteristic of intelligence rears its head: memory. With such a low I.Q. Charlie didn’t have the ability to remember very much. But now the memories of his deplorable mother’s actions during his childhood leave him an emotional mess. Then his “friends” at the bakery reveal themselves to be scoundrels. They befriended him solely because his low I.Q. made them feel superior. They enact every school yard bully’s fantasy: they get to pick on someone and they not only get away with it but they also have their target begging for more. Now, as Charlie makes them eat his intellectual dust, they reveal their true colors. They band together and get him fired because he’s making them look bad. That’s not to say Charlie’s blameless. He used to be a jovial fellow. Now he’s a pompous jerk.

Then Charlie himself sees the flaw in the experiment and has to watch his brother-in-arms, Algernon, regress. He knows it’s only a matter of time before he too loses all his new-found intelligence. I have to say, this struck me deeply. Ten years ago I was working full time at night and going to school full time during the day. Learning means so much to me that I spent 4 years getting a BA in English even though it wouldn’t help me all that much in my IT job. Now, I’m working full time and going for my master’s part time. I value learning at the cost of years of sleep. The thought of one day losing all which I’ve learned frightens me to no end.

This was such a powerful book. It really made me think. It reveals that intellect is nothing without emotional stability. Charlie has no intellectual boundaries but remains terrified of women thanks to that aforementioned maladjusted mother. It also brings religion briefly into the discussion. One character asks: If God didn’t bless Charlie with a high I.Q. are the scientists playing God by overcoming that limitation? I wonder if the same question was asked when the first organ transplant happened.  Are their answers to those questions? I must admit that if there are, I’m ignorant of them.

What I’m not ignorant of is that  this book is worth your while.

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One Response to Book Review: Flowers for Algernon

  1. Pingback: Flowers for Algernon, Guest Post from Bookshelf Fantasies | Allison's Book Bag

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