I only heard about this book by Daniel Keyes during a concert; a mandarin concert no less. Eli Hsieh (谢震廷), winner of the Best New Artiste at the 27th Golden Melody Awards in 2016, named his debut album Progress Reports. During a concert which I attended, he mentioned that Flowers of Algernon changed his life. I am a sucker for this phrase “(insert song title/movie title/book title) changed my life”. I made a mental note to get hold of the book there and then.
With more than five million copies sold, Flowers for Algernon is the beloved, classic story of a mentally disabled man whose experimental quest for intelligence mirrors that of Algernon, an extraordinary lab mouse. In poignant diary entries, Charlie tells how a brain operation increases his IQ and changes his life. As the experimental procedure takes effect, Charlie’s intelligence expands until it surpasses that of the doctors who engineered his metamorphosis. The experiment seems to be a scientific breakthrough of paramount importance–until Algernon begins his sudden, unexpected deterioration. Will the same happen to Charlie?
It is so hard to put into words the gamut of emotions this marvellous story sent me through, but I can share what happened with the last 20 pages. I was reading furiously, working against time to finish it before I had to teach a class, but alas I couldn’t do it. All through the 2 hours in class my mind was delivering the lesson, but my soul was somewhere else. The moment the lesson ended, I found a quiet corner at the foodcourt and as the food stalls closed up for the day I let the last 20 pages caressed my soul. I knew what was coming for Charlie but I was hoping against hope that the inevitable will not happen. When I reached the last sentence, I swear if there weren’t anybody around, my tears would have rolled down.
This is one amazing piece of literature and it wields such power. It has the ability to make me angry, sad and make my soul buoyant with hope. The premise is already brilliant and it never became a one trick pony. Keyes builds on it and it becomes a thorough and clinical study of how ultimate intelligence without a temperance for affection is medicine for mental and moral breakdown. The story also examines mental disability from both sides of the table and the human condition. It is masterfully written and can really make me get inside the head of Charlie and empathise with his plight and struggles. It may be heartbreaking but it succeeded in making me feel so thankful for my lot in life. This is one book that should be on your bookshelf. A story that can be savoured and make you want to be a better person.
I should by all means end my musing with that line above, but I thought I should share two more stories. Whenever I read a good book, hear a great song or watched an awesome film, I can never shut up. So a couple of weeks ago I shared in every class I teach about the story and its intriguing premise. I didn’t think anybody bothered, but one 16-year-old girl was so captivated by it that she borrowed the book from the library. She finished it two weeks later and told me about it. She even said she wanted to buy the book. So I helped her get a copy from Amazon since I was getting one myself. I asked her why she wanted the book when she has already read it. Her reply warmed my heart. She shared that she has never bought a book on her own, but she felt a deep need to get this one because there is so much wisdom in it. It is times like this that make me so glad I am a teacher; and I don’t even teach her English, I am her A.Math teacher.
After finishing the book, I studied the lyrics of the Chinese song that introduced me to it. My mandarin is crap so my wife patiently explained the lyrics to me. Even she was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the words. Eli Hsieh definitely meant it when he said those 5 magic words – “this book changed my life”.
查理 (Flowers for Algernon)
曾经 那双眼睛 拥有快乐和感激
当 我也还是单纯蒙懂的查理却 提早承受负荷不了的压力
才发现 自己不是 自己
曾经 这双眼睛 拥有无比的真心
你会发现 在心底里 也住着查理