A room without books is like a body without a soul.
— Marcus Tullius Cicero
Flowers For Algernon
When I was a kid I hated to read. I really, truly, absolutely despised it. I didn’t pass through school by reading assignments. I guessed everything. I listened to the teacher (somewhat), used deductive reasoning on those multiple answer tests and hoped for the best. My sister though, she loves to read, always has. She was the Rory in the house growing up. I never understood how she could do it. She would zone out for hours on a book, often finishing entire books in one to two days. She would get mad if we interrupted her. I want to look back and think it funny but it’s still terrifying to recall.
My view on books began to change my freshman year of high school. Things in my home life were pretty bad when I found this book in my high school’s library. I thought it was called Charly because that’s what was written on the front in what looked like kid’s handwriting. It was thin and smelled like the Nancy Drew books my sister borrowed from my grandma when we were kids. It had no pictures; I almost put it down but stuffed it in my book bag instead.
I started to read this book without knowing what it was about and found I couldn’t put it down. It’s not “well written” but it’s such a fantastic and sweet story. Charlie (not sure how it’s meant to be spelt) narrates through these “progris riports” where he’s documenting his current life as a mentally challenged person transitioning along with a mouse named Algernon during a science experiment. Long story short, you get to see an intellectually challenged person become smart. I won’t go on in detail from there but that is the premise of the story.
This is the first time I will ever connect with a character, multiple characters, and somehow relate to their situation; or at the very least, empathize. I don’t know what that says about me if I can relate to a fictionally challenged person but it happened from the start. It’s the second book I’ve read twice (Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes I read in third and fourth grades, easy book report for fourth grade) and the only book I’ve ever officially recommended. I don’t read anything twice. I don’t watch movies twice and I’m not a fan of reruns. I remember too much and find repetition boring.
This book was the first to make me want to know as much as I could about the characters. I felt angry and sad and happy throughout the story. I wanted things for Charlie. I wanted him to be happy and I wanted to beat up the bullies he told me about. I loved his relationship with Algernon. I loved how hard he worked. I loved watching his progress. I never felt like characters in a book were people before; I never felt like the worlds they lived in were real before; I never felt while reading before I read Flowers For Algernon.
I learned more about compassion through the eyes of Charlie than I had learned in the 14 years before meeting him; I learned about the challenges people face just for being different. It’s amazing to look back and think how much one book can change your views, alter your character even if only just a little. Even though that book is fiction it still made me see things I never would have bothered with before. There comes a point where you’re so involved in the story that your heart hurts a little…mine did. I’m sad now because I refuse to go on about it (not a fan of giving or receiving spoilers).
Flowers For Algernon not only altered my perspective on the mentally challenged by introducing me to the idea that how they speak or walk or look on the outside doesn’t mean the parts you can’t see or hear are useless (remember, I was only 14); but, I was introduced to an entire universe that I had willingly ignored. Flowers For Algernon was my gateway book and I’ve been hooked ever since…*
Anyone 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 or 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
*until fairly recently but that’s a totally different story…