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Fiction

Flowers for Algernon questions what it means to be intelligent

There were so many rave reviews about the book that I bought a copy of it last year. Charlie Gordon is about to embark upon an unprecedented journey. Born with an unusual low IQ, he has been chosen as the perfect subject for an experimental surgery that researchers hope will increase his intelligence – a procedure that has already been highly successful when tested on a lab mouse named Algernon. The book begins with broken grammar and sentences of spelling error, which makes it a little hard to read nevertheless the reader would still understand. As Charlie progresses through the experiment we see he progresses by leaps and bound and soon he starts to talk about scientific concepts and scientific terminologies that put me at loss.

Miss Kinnian teeches me how to spel better.  I have lots of truble with through that you say THREW and enough and tough that you dont say ENEW and TEW. You got to say ENUFF and TUFF. Thats how I use to rite it before I started to get smart. Im mixd up but Miss Kinnian says dont worry spelling is not supp0se to make sence.

Charlie started out working in his father’s friend’s bakery as a cleaner. Before Charlie was put on the experiment, the mouse “Algernon” is put under the same experiment as well. As the treatment takes effect, Charlie’s intelligence expands until it surpasses that of the doctors who engineered his metamorphosis. Along the way Charlie falls in love and we know that for all intelligence in the world there is none that would help with giving the right solution to the matter of the heart. The experiment appears to be a scientific breakthrough of paramount importance until Algernon suddenly deteriorates… Will the same happen to Charlie?

The book hits most of the questions I have asked myself about intelligence. In this book you will find gems of wisdom that qualify for wall posters for life’s gentle reminders:

On God’s gift:

Miss Kinnian says Im a fine person and Ill show them all. I asked her why. She said never mind but I shouldnt feel bad if I find out that everybody isnt nice like I think. She said for a person who God gave so little to you did more than a lot of people with brains they never even used. I said that all my friends are smart people and their good. Then she got something in her eyes and she had to to run out to the ladys room. – page 37

On being a person, regardless whether you are a genius or an idiot:

But I’m not an inanimate object,” I argued. “I’m a person.”
He looked confused for a moment and then laughed. “Of course, Charlie. But I wasn’t referring to now. I meant before the operations.”
Smug, pompous – I felt like hitting him too. “I was a person before the operations. In case you forgot – “

On tolerance when you are intelligent:

You’ve got  a superb mind now, intelligence that can’t really be calculated, more knowledge absorbed by now than most people pick up in a long lifetime. But you’re lopsided. You know things. You see things. But you haven’t developed understanding, or – I have to use the word – tolerance. says Burt – page 152

On learning:

Strange about learning: The farther I go the more I see that I never knew even existed. – page 153

On the fallacy of seeking knowledge for the sake of knowledge:

Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it to you as hypothesis: 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-centres end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain. When I was retarded I had a lot of friends. Now I have no one. oh I know lots of people but I don’t have any real friends. – page 249

When I was in primary school, I was a loner. Not because I was strange but because I always came out top academically in the whole school. Being perceive as intelligent sort of sets me apart and as a result I don’t have many close friends.

When I grew up, I beginning to realise that there are things I couldn’t do. Try as hard as I could, I no longer have all the answers to physics and mechanics. Two decades back, intelligence was defined very myopically. When I became an adult, I realise Intelligence is contextual and there are many types of intelligence. It could be musical intelligence, emotional intelligence and artistically intelligent. The more I pursuit knowledge the more there is so much I didn’t know. But I also acquire and develop more of a different kind of intelligence, i.e. emotional intelligence.

As I grew older, I don’t feel that intelligent anymore. I can’t build scientifically sophisticated equipment, nor can I do complex mental mathematics. I am not highly successful nor do I have an IQ scores of 180. Intelligence doesn’t necessary gets a person to the top. It is a combination of other skills, together with intelligence that gets one to the top these days.

In fact like Charley, I find myself more absent minded and forgetful lately. Is it lethargy? Is it ageing? Is there a threshold on how much a brain could store? and at what capacity I am able to quickly recall them? and that worries me…….. To think we spend a lifetime accumulating knowledge only to face the threat of Dementia, Alzheimer or Parkinson diseases etc. just some of the many names to describe a condition where brain cells don’t function properly, resulting in memory loss. Because ……………

The end of Charlie may possibly resembles the end of me….

This book is life changing. It asks us what we as a society value in life. Is it intelligence or kindness? Is Charley better off being his old self or his super intelligent new self? Has Charley been given a great opportunity to participate in this experiment or is it a curse? Why does his mother and sister associate his disability with shame? Why must they treat him so cruel?

The book reminds us there are things that cannot be solved with the intelligence of the world, like how not to get your heart broken, like how to love. It reminds me in the pursuit of knowledge, let us not forget love, wisdom and faith are what matters ultimately and that these should be the end, not intelligence. Too often the world places too much focus and adulation on people who are intelligent to the expense of humanity. Let us not forget about the Charlies in the world.  Let us show compassion to people who are less intelligent.

I strongly urge you to read this book. Very moving.

Rating: 

Other reviews:

Bookie Mee: People often started their reviews by saying this book so-and-so made them cry. That doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t cry for a book. Little did I know that I would begin my review now by saying this book made me cry! And not just a tear or two, but more like weeping for 5 minutes. At least TWO times!

Novel Insights: I would seriously urge you to get a copy!

Jackie@Farmlane Books: The book takes you on an emotional roller coaster, which left me thinking about it for hours. I am sure that the powerful, original plot will remain with me for many years to come.

1966 Nebula Award for Best Novel and Winner of Hugo Award

About the writer:

Daniel Keyes was born in Brooklyn, New York . He received a BA and an MA from Brooklyn College. He has been a merchant seaman, a ship’s purser, a fivtion editor and a high school teacher. Flowers for Algernon was first published as a magazine story in 1960 and won a Hugo for best science novellete. It went on to win the Nebula Awardfor best science fiction novel, an award winning television drama and won an Oscar for Cliff Robertson as Best Actor in the feature film adaptation, Charly.

Mr. Keyes has taught high school English and is the author of The Touch and The Mind of Billy Milligan. His most recent book,Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer’s Journey was published in February of 2000 in concert with the completion of a new made for television feature film entitled Flowers for Algernon .

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books.

Discussion

20 thoughts on “Flowers for Algernon questions what it means to be intelligent

  1. I quite liked this book, but didn’t love it, when I wrote my review: http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/2010/06/book-review-flowers-for-algernon-by.html

    Now that it’s over a year later, the story has still stayed with me. I think I liked it more after I read the author’s memoir on how/why he wrote this book – Algernon, Charlie & I (my review: http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/2010/08/book-review-algernon-charlie-and-i.html)

    Posted by christa @ mental foodie | July 30, 2011, 8:38 am
  2. This book is already on my wishlist. You once more confirmed what a great book it is. I will get round to it, I will!

    Posted by Leeswammes | July 30, 2011, 8:45 am
    • Oh.. Judith,
      I hope you get around reading the book. It is sad but it questions some important things we hold dear in life. I look forward to hear what you think about it!

      Posted by JoV | July 30, 2011, 10:14 am
  3. Oh gosh, I think I checked this out from the library and had to return it before I got to it. From your quotes I see I must check it out again!

    Posted by rhapsodyinbooks | July 30, 2011, 2:13 pm
  4. I’ve read this book twice — first when I was a teenager at school, and then last year as a 40-something. It’s an amazing book and very thought-provoking.

    And I like your comments about intelligence. You don’t necessarily need brains to succeed in life — you need common sense, resourcefulness and an ability to relate to other people, amongst other things.

    Posted by kimbofo | July 31, 2011, 11:53 am
    • Kim,
      Thanks for dropping by. It’s my first time reading it and I’m close to 40! LOL… maybe I’ll re-read it again when I am 40-something and see if I feel the same. I think this is a book that will last and understood differently through various stages of my life but it is one that reaffirms my beliefs and society’s misconceptions about intelligence. Yes Kim, we don’t necessarily need brains to succeed and all the criteria you mentioned rings true.

      Posted by JoV | July 31, 2011, 1:01 pm
  5. I’m so pleased that you found this book as powerful as I did. Ialso agree with your thoughts on intelligence. I was one of the most intelligent pupils at my school and at that stage it was seen as the only important thing. As an adult I can now see that getting top marks means very little and I wish that school concentrated on all the other aspects of life – social interaction, public speaking etc. This is one of my all time favourite books and I hope your review has persuaded a few other people to give it a try.

    Posted by farmlanebooks | July 31, 2011, 11:57 am
    • Jackie,
      What a shame public education systems throughout the world doesn’t prepare the young for any skills to face the read world. Children learn in different speed and we can’t all be the same. It is just a shame that children who learn quicker gets preferential treatment from the teachers (no matter how they would deny it) and school systems reward intelligent student as they get accepted to the good school. It took me a long time to know that intelligence is not everything but now that in recent years I know I’m a lot more tolerant and help out a little more for people who are left behind.

      I can imagine you being the intelligent one in school! and It is a powerful book I’m glad we think the same.

      Posted by JoV | July 31, 2011, 1:06 pm
  6. I read this book back when I was in high school (though I was never required to read it for class) and really enjoyed it. I would like to re-read it one of these days since I don’t remember much about it except that it was really sad! And also that my mother, who really is not a reader at all, told me that it was a wonderful book that she really enjoyed, which I think speaks volumes!

    Posted by Steph | August 1, 2011, 3:37 pm
    • Steph,
      I am amazed how many great comments I received about this book. Makes me want to go out and buy a hardback and better print copy just to make it last throughout the year with occasional reading (I’m still not a Kindle person yet!) Thanks for sharing your experience and especially your mom’s, I really appreciate it!

      Posted by JoV | August 1, 2011, 8:08 pm
  7. Jo really glad that you loved it as much as I did! I never thought about Charlie’s deterioration resembling getting old and losing one’s mind. Great interpretation. I don’t re-read books, but this is one of those books that I think I would love to read it again in the future.

    Posted by mee | August 3, 2011, 12:40 pm
    • Mee,
      Yeah the last part of Charlie’s life does resembles someone advancing old age, memory loss, agitation, all the same symptoms especially for one who acquire knowledge too much! I hope you re-read it one day!

      Posted by JoV | August 5, 2011, 8:59 am
  8. Oh you make me want to read it right now! :) And thankfully there are many different forms of intelligence, I usually felt stupid because I wasn’t a maths genius and ‘only’ good at languages etc. And you definitely are intelligent! Your reviews are evidence of that! And I know from our emailing that you a great with people as well :)

    Posted by Bina | August 10, 2011, 9:39 pm
  9. I recalled seeing the movie years ago and being moved by it-I am sure there is much more in the book-your review was great as always

    Posted by Mel u | September 10, 2011, 2:31 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  2. Pingback: Blog of a 7th Grade Percussionist » Blog Archive » Flowers for Algernon - April 26, 2013

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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