Book Reviews

Flowers for Algernon * Daniel Keyes

I ran into this book recommendation on Reddit of all places, talking about IQ, EQ and other interesting things. I had it on my radar and I decided to bite the bullet and read it over a week. I was totally mistaken on how long it actually took me to finish it – 2 days – including one night where I was sleepless and I continued reading until the sun came up.

I knew I was going to love this book from its first quote.

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light. And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other; or, if he have a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason in this than in the laugh which greets him who returns from above out of the light into the den.

Plato, The Republic

The Story

As part of an experiment to enhance the human brain, Charlie – a 32-year old man who suffers from severe mental delays caused by untreated phenylketonuria – agrees to undergo an operation which will enhance his brain and make him smarter.

“We don’t know exactly what causes the type of phenylketonuria that Charlie was suffering from as a child—some unusual biochemical or genetic situation, possibly ionizing radiation or natural radiation or even a virus attack on the fetus—whatever it was resulted in a defective gene which produces a, shall we say, ‘maverick enzyme’ that creates defective biochemical reactions. And, of course, newly produced amino acids compete with the normal enzymes causing brain damage.”

His predecessor, Algernon, a white lab mouse, has shown massive increases in his capacity to learn and has overtaken successfully all of his mates. Charlie, in hopes of finally achieving this much-sought-after enlightenment, is eager to be their new human test subject and from his reports we learn who he is, what he does and how the operation has affected him.

Written in the form of medical reports and narration from Charlie’s POV, we embark on a journey to find out what defines a human. Is it his knowledge, is it personality, is it the never-ending desire to do better, the perseverance, the ambition, the guilt?

I loved this book and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone interested in medical research. (PS, even though it’s been written in 1945, it’s still as current now as it was then)


IQ 67

THEMATIC APPERCEPTON TEST . I dont know the frist 2 werds but I know what test means. You got to pass it or you get bad marks. This test lookd easy because I coud see the picturs. Only this time she dint want me to tell what I saw in the picturs. That mixd me up. I tolld her yesterday Burt said I shoud tell what I saw in the ink. She said that dont make a difrence because this test is something else. Now you got to make up storys about the pepul in the picturs.

I said I coud make storys about them because I livd with Uncle Herman along time but the lady dint want to hear about them. She said this test and the other one the raw shok was for getting persinality. I laffd. I tolld her how can you get that thing from cards that sombody spilld ink on and fotos of pepul you dont even no. She lookd angrey and took the picturs away. I dont care.

Im skared. Lots of pepul who werk at the collidge and the pepul at the medicil school came to wish me luk. Burt the tester brot me some flowers he said they were from the pepul at the psych departmint. He wished me luk. I hope I have luk. I got my rabits foot and my luky penny and my horshoe. Dr Strauss said dont be so superstishus Charlie. This is sience. I dont no what sience is but they all keep saying it so mabye its something that helps you have good luk. Anyway Im keeping my rabits foot in one hand and my luky penny in the other hand with the hole in it. The penny I meen. I wish I coud take the horshoe with me to but its hevy so Ill just leeve it in my jaket.

IQ: 90

—I feel a lot better today, but I’m still angry that all the time people were laughing and making fun of me.

I’m not sure what I.Q. is anyway. Prof. Nemur said it was something that measured how intelligent you were—like a scale in the drugstore weighs pounds. But Dr. Strauss had a big argument with him and said an I.Q. didn’t weigh intelligence at all. He said an I.Q. showed how much intelligence you could get, like the numbers on the outside of a measuring cup. You still had to fill the cup up with stuff.

IQ 100

I went back with them to the psych office with mixed feelings. I was sure they had made fun of me and tricked me when I was too ignorant to know better. My anger was an exciting feeling, and I didn’t give it up easily. I was ready to fight.

The same words, almost the same tone of voice he had used minutes ago in the lab. And then I heard my answers—childish, impossible things. And I dropped limply into the chair beside Professor Nemur’s desk. “Was that really me?”

IQ 120

Sometimes I listen in on the conversations at the tables around me, and pretend I’m a college student, even though I’m a lot older than they are. I carry books around, and I’ve started to smoke a pipe. It’s silly, but since I belong at the lab I feel as if I’m a part of the university. I hate to go home to that lonely room.

[…]

And they talked about politics and art and God. I never before heard anyone say that there might not be a God. That frightened me, because for the first time I began to think about what God means. Now I understand 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. All the time they talked and argued, I felt the excitement bubble up inside me.

This was what I wanted to do—go to college and hear people talk about important things.

IQ 140

—My studies are going well. The university library is my second home now. They’ve had to get me a private room because it takes me only a second to absorb the printed page, and curious students invariably gather around me as I flip through my books. My most absorbing interests at the present time are etymologies of ancient languages, the newer works on the calculus of variations, and Hindu history. It’s amazing the way things, apparently disconnected, hang together. I’ve moved up to another plateau, and now the streams of the various disciplines seem to be closer to each other as if they flow from a single source. Strange how when I’m in the college cafeteria and hear the students arguing about history or politics or religion, it all seems so childish. I find no pleasure in discussing ideas any more on such an elementary level.

IQ 160

I had no way of knowing what she expected of me. This was far from the clear lines of problem-solving and the systematic acquisition of knowledge. I kept telling myself that the sweating palms, the tightness in my chest, the desire to put my arms around her were merely biochemical reactions. I even traced the pattern of stimulus-and-reaction that caused my nervousness and excitement. Yet everything was fuzzy and uncertain. Should I put my arm around her or not? Was she waiting for me to do it? Would she get angry? I could tell I was still behaving like an adolescent and it angered me.

IQ 165

“But what’s wrong with a person wanting to be more intelligent, to acquire knowledge, and understand himself and the world?” “If you’d read your Bible, Charlie, you’d know that it’s not meant for man to know more than was given to him to know by the Lord in the first place. The fruit of that tree was forbidden to man. Charlie, if you done anything you wasn’t supposed to—you know, like with the devil or something—maybe it ain’t too late to get out of it. Maybe you could go back to being the good simple man you was before.”

“They’re pushing you too fast. You’re confused. You want to be an adult, but there’s still a little boy inside you. Alone and frightened.” She put my head on her shoulder, trying to comfort me, and as she stroked my hair I knew that she needed me the way I needed her.

IQ 170

I told Strauss that I was too involved in thinking, reading, and digging into myself, trying to understand who and what I am, and that writing was such a slow process it made me impatient to get my ideas down. I followed his suggestion that I learn to type, and now that I can type nearly seventy-five words a minute, it’s easier to get it all down on paper. Strauss again brought up my need to speak and write simply and directly so that people will understand me. He reminds me that language is sometimes a barrier instead of a pathway. Ironic to find myself on the other side of the intellectual fence.

“What did you expect? Did you think I’d remain a docile pup, wagging my tail and licking the foot that kicks me? Sure, all this has changed me and the way I think about myself. I no longer have to take the kind of crap that people have been handing me all my life.”

IQ 180

I wanted to jump up and tell them, but I couldn’t move. Like Algernon, I found myself behind the mesh of the cage they had built around me.

I wasn’t his son. That was another Charlie. Intelligence and knowledge had changed me, and he would resent me—as the others from the bakery resented me—because my growth diminished him. I didn’t want that.

How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes—how such people think nothing of abusing a man born with low intelligence. It infuriated me to remember that not too long ago I—like this boy—had foolishly played the clown. And I had almost forgotten.

IQ 170

No matter which path I took I got a shock that meant another mistake. Every path was blocked. But, God … everything I did, everywhere I turned, doors were closed to me. There was no place to enter. No street, no room, no woman.

IQ 165

—I dedicated my first piano concerto to Fay. She was excited by the idea of having something dedicated to her, but I don’t think she really liked it. Just goes to show that you can’t have everything you want in one woman. One more argument for polygamy.

IQ 160

Although we know the end of the maze holds death (and it is something I have not always known—not long ago the adolescent in me thought death could happen only to other people), I see now that the path I choose through that maze makes me what I am. I am not only a thing, but also a way of being—one of many ways—and knowing the paths I have followed and the ones left to take will help me understand what I am becoming.

“There are a lot of people who will give money or materials, but very few who will give time and affection. That’s what I mean.”

No one had spoken of hope. The feeling was of living death—or worse, of never having been fully alive and knowing. Souls withered from the beginning, and doomed to stare into the time and space of every day.

IQ 150

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. And now that I’ve found it, how can I give it up? Life and work are the most wonderful things a man can have. I am in love with what I am doing, because the answer to this problem is right here in my mind, and soon—very soon—it will burst into consciousness. Let me solve this one problem. I pray God it is the answer I want, but if not I will accept any answer at all and try to be grateful for what I had.

Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now there’s one thing you’ve all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn’t been tempered by human affection isn’t worth a damn.” Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain. “When I was retarded I had lots of friends. Now I have no one. Oh, I know lots of people. Lots and lots of people. But I don’t have any real friends. Not like I used to have in the bakery. Not a friend in the world who means anything to me, and no one I mean anything to.”

IQ 140

But I’ve got to know about myself, to understand myself before it’s too late. Don’t you see, I can’t be a complete person unless I can understand myself, and you’re the only one in the world who can help me now. Let me come in and sit down for a little while.”

IQ 130

There was no way to stop the sands of knowledge from slipping through the hourglass of my mind.

IQ 120

I tell myself there’ll be time enough to sleep later, when it’s dark.

IQ 110

I am afraid. Not of life, or death, or nothingness, but of wasting it as if I had never been.

IQ 90

—Mrs Mooney is very worried about me. She says the way I lay around all day and dont do anything I remind her of her son before she threw him out of the house. She said she dont like loafters. If Im sick its one thing but if Im a loafter thats another thing and she has no use for me. I told her I think Im sick.

IQ 70

I dont no why Im dumb agen or what I did rong. Mabye its because I dint try hard enuf or just some body put the evel eye on me. But if I try and practis very hard mabye Ill get a littel smarter and no what all the words are. I remembir a littel bit how nice I had a feeling with the blue book that I red with the toren cover. And when I close my eyes I think about the man who tored the book and he looks like me only he looks different and he talks different but I dont think its me because its like I see him from the window. Anyway thats why Im gone to keep trying to get smart so I can have that feeling agen. Its good to no things and be smart and I wish I new evrything in the hole world. I wish I coud be smart agen rite now. If I coud I woud sit down and reed all the time.

P.S. please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.