For some reason I’d never read this book although it seems I’ve heard of it forever. So it was on sale at Audible and I snapped it up. Then I waited for my next break in scheduled reading and got to it. I’m generally not big on books from the 1960s and ’70s except as remembered good reads, but this one is really quite good – in large part because it’s about way more than science fiction – it’s about identity and the human condition and that’s probably a big part of what makes it a classic .
As first person protagonist we have Charlie Gordon, age 32, a “mentally retarded” but very sweet man with many friends who has been working at a friend’s bakery for 17 years. He really enjoys his job, but he wants to be smarter and so is taking special reading classes after work.
As a result of the classes, he’s chosen to participate in a psychology test case involving increasing human intelligence through experimental surgery. In a maze test he’s pitted against a mouse named Algernon who has had the surgery and at first, Algernon always beats Charlie. (Fwiw, Algernon was named for an English poet.)
Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes
1959 / 311 pages
read by Jeff Woodman – 8h 58m
rating: 8.5 – classic literary sci-fi
After the surgery he continues to work at the bakery as he undergoes memory training and continues reading classes. He’s also given the tools for subliminal messaging through tapes in his sleep and he writes reports on his progress for the experimenters. His reading and memory in general improve as well as his emotional development but not at the same pace.
In very short order Charlie learns to remember a few things and is promoted from assistant to baker at work. Also, his dreams become more vivid and through them he remembers events from his childhood including some violent dysfunction.
But life isn’t all happy for Charlie who wanted to read and get smart so badly. He’s not entirely appreciated by his co-workers who come to view him as competition. He’s now laughed at by a few of them. As Charlie understands more, he gets a bit suspicious of people. His intelligence and memory continue to increase as he reads more and more difficult material. Ethical concerns manifest themselves and he learns to deal with some conflict and stress.
He tries dating but it’s not the same to him as it is to her. He finds new emotions and new understanding about them, but then he’s confused. His intelligence continues to increase – post-grad level. He stops working at the bakery and he comes to realize the narrow range of knowledge in the specialists Charlie’s emotional problems continue – he’s very immature and he had a long and very difficult childhood. He has to confront his ideas about himself and everything gets quite complex.
Unlike a lot of older science fiction, this book holds up in many ways, but that’s because for the most part, the focus is on Charlie’s personal issues rather than the 1950s science.
It’s literary because the structure of progress reports and letters provides a unique texture. The language changes smoothly and is appropriate to the situation and Charlie’s development. The themes of isolation and identity are interwoven with the ideas of what it means to be smart and human as well as how the mentally disabled are treated in our culture.
The background on story is quite interesting:
1960: Hugo Award for the short story “Flowers for Algernon”
1966: Nebula Award for the novel Flowers for Algernon
1986: Kurd Lasswitz Award for The Minds of Billy Milligan
1993: Seiun Award (Non-Fiction of the Year) for The Minds of Billy Milligan
2000: Author Emeritus Award from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America
It’s also been challenged and removed many times from the shelves of both public and school libraries. .