“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes

This book, published in 1966, is regarded as a modern American classic, but I had never read it. It kept coming up so often in discussions and articles related to books that I eventually got hold of a copy from the library. Classics can sometimes be a difficult read, so I approached it with some trepidation. But I found it immediately accessible and readable. I have always appreciated books in which the story is so powerful that no literary gimmicks are needed to tell it, and this is very much true of Flowers for Algernon. The writing is so straightforward that it can easily be read even at the school level; however, the story itself is one that can be appreciated at any age. In fact, I think the older are you, the more meaningful it is.

The story itself is very unique, and I don’t recall reading another story remotely similar to this. It is almost science fiction but not quite. It is about a mentally disabled young man — in those days, the term “retarded” was still being used — on whom an experimental surgical procedure (on the brain) is done to try and “cure” his mental condition. The experiment was first done on a mouse named Algernon and the results were very promising. So, as the next step, the scientists who had come up with the procedure wanted to try it on a human, and Charlie was selected as the subject.

At first, all goes well, and Charlie becomes very smart, with an IQ in the genius range. In fact, he becomes much smarter than everybody around him, including the scientists who devised the procedure and performed the surgery on him. However, this does not last, and it is the erratic behavior of the mouse, Algernon, and his subsequent death, which provides a clue into the fate that awaits Charlie. He eventually loses the surgically induced mental boost that he had received and goes back to his original mental state.

The story is told through the progress reports that Charlie has been asked to maintain throughout the experiment, and we can see his initial reports written like a child and riddled with spelling and punctuation errors, slowly progressing to where they are normal — written by an adult with their full mental faculties — and finally back again to where they are simplistic and child-like. It is so sad to see Charlie regress, even though you know that not only is this a fictional story, but also, that it is fiction which is not rooted in reality. Even in the present time, over 50 years after the publication of this book, we do not have any kind of surgical procedure to cure “intellectual disabilities” in the people who have them.

However, what we do have now is a much better understanding of the relationship between the biology of a brain (nodes, lobes, cortex, etc.) and behavior and ability. And what I especially liked about this book, apart from it being a good read, is how starkly it makes the connection between the two. As human beings, we don’t like to admit this, but most, if not all, of our abilities and behavior comes from the wiring of our brains. It is this which determines whether we are geniuses or slow or somewhere in between, and this is something we are born with, and therefore have little control over. (The memoir, Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening, that I wrote about a couple of years ago is another book that highlights the connection between our brains and who/how we are.)

I think this understanding leads to an entirely different take on life, where you have much less “awe” of geniuses and much more empathy towards those who are at the “slow” end of the spectrum.

I am not sure if the author set out to write a meaningful story, one with an underlying philosophy. But even if he did not, I’m glad to find a book that highlights such an important issue. It’s not something I come across often in the realm of fiction.

Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes    
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: March 1966  

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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