28 July 2012

Flowers for Algernon

I just finished reading Flowers for Algernon, a book written back in the 1960s by Daniel Keyes. It is not for people who don't like an emotional (as well as intelligent) story. In it, we meet Charlie Gordon, a man in his 30s who works as a janitor at a factory. He has an IQ of 68, and struggles with reading and writing. In that struggle, however, he strives to better himself by attending reading and writing classes for adults. He is chosen as the subject of an experimental procedure designed to tripe the IQ of the person through brain surgery. The story doesn't get into the specifics of the operation, because it's not important, and because it's written as Charlie's diary.

Essentially, the operation is a success, and you see Charlie's diary getting more introspective, and the grammar, punctuation, and diction improving exponentially. You see him realise that all those people who were joking around and laughing with him at the factory were actually laughing at him. When he comes to that realisation, it hurts, and he talks about his feelings, now that he can look back on his former life.

At one point in the story, you realise that as rapid as his progress was, his decline on the other side happens as well. It almost feels like the author suggested that the accelerated learning happened at the expense of "using up" your brain's lifetime, which means that because you progress much faster, your eventual demise comes rushing at you equally quickly.

In a heartbreaking turn of events, you see Charlie losing things that he has grown to love. He loses languages he understood fluently. He no longer understands scientific papers he's written himself. His own progress reports become indecipherable to him. What's even more heartbreaking is that he thrashes around (mentally), desperately trying to hold on to those memories, those experiences, those joys he had.

It was all the more sad, because I myself do enjoy my intellectual pursuits. I love to read. In books, I find escape, I learn things, I dream, I become. Above and beyond that, however, I love learning new things. Whether it be about food, or science, literature, or minor trivia, I take pleasure in absorbing new knowledge. I can so identify with Charlie, as he struggles to grasp things that seem just out of his reach. Even though he finds it difficult, he keeps trying, because he has this inner drive to push himself to become better.

More than that, I enjoy writing. I love being able to get my thoughts down into words, and get them out of my head. It means that I don't have to sit around with those thoughts. They can be committed to paper (frequently) or the Internet (less frequently, but still enjoyable), and I no longer need to hold on to them. When I write for myself (in my personal diaries), or for myself and others (like on my blog), or for my husband (in the goofy little love notes I leave hidden in his bag, or his wallet, or other random places he will get surprised with), it's like I'm reaching out to a part of myself that would otherwise languish without the attention. It's almost like writing is healing.

Without those pursuits, I feel like my mind would be a dismal place.

What are some of the things that you hold dear?