johnny_reilly 2 months ago

This book changed me. I was an idle eight year old, and my school didn't give us homework to do. So my father decided to set me homework of his own devising, which on one occasion was reading Flowers for Algernon.

I was moved by the story of a man who had little natural ability, straining to make the best of what he had. Then becoming smarter than everyone around him, and then what follows.

There's many things to take from this story. I took away that we should make the best of what we have. To do otherwise is to miss out. Never take what you have for granted. Everything is a blessing; don't waste it.

  • psbp 2 months ago

    I was always insecure about my intelligence and I remember coming away with this same idea from the book. Life is really just a series of experiences. You don't need to meet a certain standard or qualify yourself in order to have positive experiences or to have an impact. We often place so much emphasis on comparison and measuring our success/potential that we miss the whole process of living.

    • dontbenebby 2 months ago

      Agreed, there are people who follow metrics and those who are studied to generate new ones. (Strive to be in the latter category.)

  • helldritch 2 months ago

    I've just been emotionally effected by this work at a deep, almost uncomfortable level.

    I've worked as a mental health support worker, and this short story poked at some of the darker parts of the field: the dream of people getting "better" and wanting to "fix" them, the subtle (and not so subtle) jokes made out of their failings, having to deal with the basic human urges they don't fully understand, subjects consenting to treatment they don't have the capacity to understand, etc.

    In myself, I see my own inevitable cycle of depression and elation. I'm disabled not mentally, but emotionally. I could be happier than anyone, but in the end some part of me is always dragged back into anguish. Charlie was a genius, but in his infantile state it's brought him nothing but pain.

    The saddest part of all of this is that even when Charlie became smart enough to understand the world around him, he spent so little time in the relatable range of intelligence that the people he cared about struggled to communicate with him. They didn't understand, they were worried. Charlie never truly had a friend. Ms Kinnian cared for him, but they spent so little time able to meaningfully interact that friendship didn't have the chance to properly form.

    I'm going to go and pet my dog, I think, until this reaction passes.

  • randycupertino 2 months ago

    It's such a wonderful book! Beautifully written, haunting, lovely and sad all at the same time. One of my all-time favorite stories.

    "I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone."

    One interesting thing re: the novel is the disease Charlie has, PKU is generally screened for in infants today and treated with dietary changes:

  • mlhpdx 2 months ago

    Likewise, I read this story at an early age and have never forgotten it. It was moving and terrifying to feel that progression and regression against the backdrop of education and grades and fitting in.

    Regarding the comments using the words “less-intelligent” to motivate their “kindness”: Kindness without respect is just being nice.

  • smugma 2 months ago

    Thank you for this comment. It encouraged me to read it to my two kids (~8) last night. I actually only got about half way through it. The younger one got bored and it actually started making me choke up. I loved the story as a kid but as an adult it hurts.

  • ec109685 2 months ago

    Read this in seventh grade, and it really did move me as well. There are many events that happen in life (and stories) that remind me of this book.

    Agree with the premise of make the best of what you have.

  • DaiPlusPlus 2 months ago

    > I took away that we should make the best of what we have.

    As someone on the spectrum, no.

    • upwardbound 2 months ago

      I have a miscellaneous question in case you happen to have a perspective. Do you think it might be potentially ambiguous to use the general term "the spectrum" to refer only to the asperger's/autism spectrum? Human minds are wonderfully diverse, and I feel like it might downplay that diversity if we make it sound like there is only one spectrum of genetically-linked mental phenotypes. As some examples:

      - eidetic memory

      - depression

      - perfect pitch

      And much more. I've always wanted to ask this and was wondering if you had thoughts on this?

      • ElvisTrout 2 months ago

        The word spectrum is a word in its own right. You can apply it to whatever you want.

    • jstanley 2 months ago

      What else are you going to do? Not make the best of what you have?

      On the spectrum or not, you'll be gone in 100 years. May as well try and enjoy it while you're here.

blader 2 months ago

Ted Chiang wrote a short story inspired by Flowers for Algernon ("Understand") that explores what might happen if a guy just never stopped getting smarter:

I love Flowers for Algernon, but Understand is my favorite short story of all time.

  • SamBam 2 months ago

    I adore most of Chiang's work, but Understand is one of my least favorites. Fun premise, yes, but it reads to me like much less mature sci-fi, like something written by a teen about what being super-smart would feel like.

    • gwern 2 months ago

      That's the problem with any superintelligence story; they are by definition hard to write without being superintelligent. As Vinge was famously told, "you can't write this story. No one can." If a chimpanzee could write a story about a human expert of any sort, the other chimpanzees wouldn't understand it: it would either be gibberish, or dumbed down to superficial analogies that give an illusion of understanding. ("Then he used his rifle -" "what's a rifle?" "it's a stick which is like throwing a rock. Anyway, he traded some bananas for it with another monkey off the Internet." "What's an Internet?" "uh...")

      'Flowers' gets around it by starting with a mentally retarded protagonist and specifically trying to avoid any consequences of superintelligence beyond the emotional & social journey, so most of the story is accomplished 'on the runway', as it were, and is about everything but what he learns & does with his intelligence which is pushed into the background. You can see how it starts getting handwavy as soon as the protagonist takes off to smarter than Keys himself, and he starts having to show the progress by him simply doing ordinary-human things but much faster than a dimmer human, like rearranging the bakery for more efficiency or learning Sanskrit in a week. While it's nice to be able to read German or Sanskrit, it's not particularly useful, especially if you are interested in neuroscience; a real protagonist would be doing things Keys can't even imagine, which sound like gibberish like 'ordinary differential equations' or 'symplectic manifold'. Any societal implications are simply ignored.

      With 'Understand', Chiang starts with an intelligent protagonist, in a strictly realistic universe other than the superintelligence, where he's well aware there would be major societal consequences and military implications and the protagonist can't simply sit around and play with his lab mouse. So his back is against the narrative wall from the start. He cannot do his usual world-building tricks because he's both ruled out the world mechanics he is usually in a privileged position to understand impossibly well because he made them up in the first place, and because he's not smart enough to write the superintelligent character he's assigned himself. It's an interesting story, but I agree that it can't be considered his best. Because he can't write that story as well as he wants to, and no one can.

      • cmrdporcupine 2 months ago

        "the other chimpanzees wouldn't understand it: it would either be gibberish, or dumbed down"

        This is kind of how "Excession" by Iain M Banks is. Much of the dialogue in the book is supposed to be between the hyperintelligent AI "Minds" that are the ships in his Culture universe. It's supposed to be in a form similar to how they talk to each other. It's quite hard to read. I can never decide which of the two (gibberish or dumbed down) it is. Probably both.

        • euroderf 2 months ago

          The inevitable Arthur C Clarke paraphrase: "Any sufficiently advanced conversation is indistinguishable from gibberish."

      • myself248 2 months ago

        > That's the problem with any superintelligence story; they are by definition hard to write without being superintelligent.

        Ditto this, but for any domain specialization.

        A lot of fiction gives me a bad case of something which I don't have a term for but it seems like it might be the inverse of the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect:

        Basically, I was fine with the story until it got technical in a way that I know well, and the technical aspects of the story were so egregiously sloppy, I could no longer suspend my disbelief. And then even the nontechnical aspects just annoyed me because I figured, if the author was such an idiot they couldn't bother to look up how lasers work or whatever, they probably got everything else wrong too. Even the parts I'm not a specialist in, which I had previously just been taking on faith, I am now forced to assume that a specialist in those things would also find them laughably bad. And the whole work is ruined for me.

        (To be clear: If the author would just say, "these are magic lasers" or some other form of "a wizard did it", okay that's fine, it's fiction, I'll accept that, let's see how the story develops from there. It's when they try to claim they're real-world lasers but then merrily ascribe them impossible traits, that I get brain-jammed.)

        • WalterBright 2 months ago

          In 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, there's a chapter where a bunch of figures about the submarine are given. I played around with the math, and discovered that the figures were accurate. Cool!

          • myself248 2 months ago

            Probably not surprising at all, but my brother once ran the numbers on how much energy it would take to "fire a pound of bacon into the asteroid belt", and I don't remember the exact number but it was roughly comparable to the capacity of modern EV batteries -- a few tens of kwh.

            Of course Stephenson figured out how much battery a useful EV would need, before concocting a throwaway line about it. In 1992.

        • techdragon 2 months ago

          I’m glad I’m not the only one that has this problem!

      • helloworld11 2 months ago

        >That's the problem with any superintelligence story; they are by definition hard to write without being superintelligent. As Vinge was famously told, "you can't write this story. No one can." If a chimpanzee could write a story about a human expert of any sort, the other chimpanzees wouldn't understand it: it would either be gibberish, or dumbed down to superficial analogies that give an illusion of understanding. ("Then he used his rifle -" "what's a rifle?" "it's a stick which is like throwing a rock. Anyway, he traded some bananas for it with another monkey off the Internet." "What's an Internet?" "uh...")

        I'm not entirely sure if that's true. It might be, I honestly don't know, but my personal suspicion is that there's such a thing as what I'll just go ahead and call a threshold intelligence level. In other words, a level of cognitive capacity beyond which a creature that attains said level can functionally conceptualize things far above its actual ability to understand them in detail. This allows discussion and exploration of certain extremely advanced concepts well enough to form a narrative without falling into complete incomprehension.

        Chimpanzees might be far enough below this threshold level that even a basic story would cause them difficulty no matter how learned they are educated or bred to be, and a complex story about, say space ships or high performance aircraft would be completely outside their conception. Humans on the other hand might be able to stretch their imagination much further towards the extremes of conceptualization. However, I also think it might have its limits, namely that there are things which if explained to us would leave even the brightest humans as befuddled as a dog being lectured on internal combustion mechanics.

      • zzzzzzzza 2 months ago

        we can know certain things about things that are smarter than us.

        perhaps even smarter than a post singularity intelligence, for instance,

        we are "computationally" equivalent to a turing machine: a tape with symbols on it and a head that reads and writes symbols to the tape according to rules.

        the natural generalization of a turing machine to infinity would be a hyper turing machine: an infinitely wide tape and infinitely many heads.

        if one were to employ some kind of godel numbering esque scheme, most (the overwhelming majority) of the symbols the hyper turing machine used in it's operation/had in it's rule lookup table would correspond to transcendental numbers, e.g. pi or e (cuz their cardinality is larger than natural numbers).

        The alphabet our math uses is pretty much all finite. What percent of the axioms and theorems that you know are infinitely long? Shouldn't the overwhelming majority of axioms and theorems be infinitely long (and in particular map onto an uncountable set? (e.g. transcendental numbers).

        So a hyper turing machine would be a supra-mathematical entity. But you can pretty much use math to deduce that.

        • gwern 2 months ago

          The Turing machine argument (which Scott Aaronson has also made) for superintelligence being comprehensible is pointless because you wouldn't have time to run the TM to completion (look up how many FLOPS it takes to run even merely a GPT-3 model for a conversation and estimate how long it'd take you to do that by hand), the Chinese Room argument applies (only the TM understands, you, a mere component, do not), and humans are too error-prone and backslide too much to achieve certain things. Why can't you teach the dumbest kid in your school calculus if he's equivalent to a Turing machine? Because he forgets too fast to learn anything on net! The further up in difficulty you get, the more time gets spent on review and relearning before any new material can be broached. I've tutored low-performing kids, and you can almost see them forgetting material as it slips away from them after a brief period of comprehension, fading like a dream upon awakening, leaving only frustration and dissatisfaction. Even more extreme example: my mother worked in special ed and told me about how each year higher you go with the kids, the more you have to review; especially in contrast to the mainstreamed kids. Unsurprisingly, this asymptotes at a low level. Perhaps the most extreme example are 'click' or threshold things: you can talk about dynamic programming to someone all you want, but if it hasn't clicked, it isn't there; many Ravens matrix style problems are like that; and Piagetian developmental stages are famous for that - if you are a kid who doesn't get that volume of water is conserved from a rectangular glass to a square glass, you don't get it.

        • geysersam 2 months ago

          > we are "computationally" equivalent to a turing machine:

          Why do you think that?

          We know of modes of computation different from Turing machines, quantum computers. There's nothing saying there might not be yet other kinds of computers currently undiscovered.

          • edanm 2 months ago

            > We know of modes of computation different from Turing machines, quantum computers.

            That's wrong. Quantum computers are Turing complete just like any other form of computation we've found / invented. You can't do something on a quantum computer that you can't do on any computer, albeit in some cases you can get a speed-up by using a quantum computer.

          • zzzzzzzza 2 months ago

            actually i think we are more limited than a turing machine since even the default turing machine has a (single) infinite tape/running time. But there is a quantum turing machine/quantum lambda calculus as well. just has (probably?) a faster running time on a subset of algorithms.

            but essentially turing machine/quantum turing machine have the same kinds of inpus/outputs or domain/range, whereas a hyper turing machine has a bigger domain/range.

            • geysersam 2 months ago

              I don't understand what makes you think humans operate anything like Turing machines to begin with.

              The only way I see to reach this conclusion is to assume Turing machines are all that exist, and the conclusion follows.

              • kbelder 2 months ago

                Physics (as far as we know) is calculable and can be simulated with a Turing machine. Humans reside within the domain of physics.

                Basically, either humans operate like Turing machines, or we're magic.

        • maemre 2 months ago

          I am nerd-sniped with the computability claims here. The last paragraph sums up what I think about what you wrote more broadly.

          That description of a "hyper Turing machine" is pretty boring and ridiculous, such a machine trivially solves any computational problem we have because you can embed the problem into the transition function. Here is a sketch of how to do it: Let's call the heads on each tape 0, 1, ...; and let the input be on tape 0. Then the following is a machine that _decides_ a given language:

          1. read the input and place the first symbol to tape 1, the second table to tape 2, ... . This takes a single step!

          2. Read the whole input by reading a single symbol from each tape, and accept it if it is in the language. This can be done because the transition function can map each string to accept or reject state directly now.

          Now, here is the kicker: there are uncountably many "hyper" Turing machines but only countably many strings, so almost all of these machines cannot be described, and there cannot be a universal "hyper" Turing machine. So, I don't think they are that interesting.

          Note that the alphabet here is still finite, the infinity is handled by having infinitely many tapes (this is equivalent to going through the trouble of building up something like Goedel encoding). Moreover, I didn't specify the number of tapes here, but countably infinitely many tapes are enough, so you don't need to build an "uncountably-wide" tape. The point I'm trying to make is that if you let a Turing machine-like thing to have countably infinite descriptions, then the description may as well be "look up the solution" so it gets boring from that point on. We need only countably infinite descriptions because a language is countably infinite (because it is a subset of the set of all strings). If one tries to do some shenanigans like making the languages also have higher cardinalities, well just pump up the cardinality of the "hyper" Turing machine to match and you'd end up with the same proofs with slight changes.

          > The alphabet our math uses is pretty much all finite. What percent of the axioms and theorems that you know are infinitely long? Shouldn't the overwhelming majority of axioms and theorems be infinitely long (and in particular map onto an uncountable set? (e.g. transcendental numbers).

          As for this, we _want_ all of that (and proofs) to be finite. That gives a lot of nice structure we can work with when dealing with first-order logic and proving stuff like compactness and (in)completeness. All of our axioms and theorems are finite (assuming using FOL), we just have countably infinitely many of them (building countably infinitely many theorems is trivial, as for axioms: axiom schemas are just a countably infinite collection of axioms).

          This was all to set the record straight when it comes to computability theory. If you want tamer examples of hypercomputation, there is a lot of work on oracle machines and Turing machines that can take infinitely many steps. I think those would be better examples for the "we can reason about 'supra-mathematical' entities using plain old math." claim you are making. Although, I am not buying into this because these are all mathematical entities. We do mathematics because it is an interesting endeavor, and computability is important only in that it helps us understand the math we are doing (can we prove all "true" statements? can we devise an algorithm to solve X?), anything beyond that is still math, and a lot of the notions here (Turing machine as a proxy for algorithm, using first order logic, picking a particular set of axioms) are arbitrary choices that work well so that we can do math with a foundation that won't make us lose much sleep.

          • zzzzzzzza 2 months ago

            thanks for the reply,

            let me try and rephrase some of what you are saying to check my understanding

            set of strings is countably infinite

            so my "supra mathematical entity" is boring because for any given problem we could pose it can just function as a lookup table

            even if you made an alphabet (strings whose characters had decimal places or something) that was bigger, then it would still be kinda boring cuz the hyper hyper turing machine would still be a lookup table (though maybe even the machine in my example could still just be a lookup table for an uncountably large language on account of having uncountably many tapes/heads).

            i'm not sure if it was intended by you but my (somewhat crackpot) takeaway from your response is,

            at the limit, computation and memory become the same thing (i was physics undergrad so this still feels profound to me lol (no postgrad yet maybe one day when i am richer) (and maybe also timely w/ gpt3 XD))

            also i think i am still digesting notion that there is no general version of hyper turing machine

            • maemre 2 months ago

              > even if you made an alphabet (strings whose characters had decimal places or something) that was bigger, then it would still be kinda boring cuz the hyper hyper turing machine would still be a lookup table (though maybe even the machine in my example could still just be a lookup table for an uncountably large language on account of having uncountably many tapes/heads).

              That's pretty much what I wanted to mean. Although I called it "boring", it was not to take a jab but more so because there is not much effort to spend to understand the limitations of such a machine once you can encode the whole language into the machine's look-up table. Also, such an extension makes us lose the ability to simulate other extended machines in general. Extensions to Turing machines are interesting because of how they may alter the limits of computability (in a completely hypothetical setup) and complexity, and I had some fun when writing the response although I called that specific machine model boring because it ended up being too powerful to be interesting (from a computability theory perspective).

              • zzzzzzzza 2 months ago

                i had some more crackpot thoughts if you don't mind hearing them lol

                the set of all strings is countably infinite like the natural numbers

                however human language when actually spoken can contain recursive implicit meanings and subtext, so maybe even though it's just strings, if you made the implicit context explicit it would be uncountably infinite, much like the real numbers, even though in practice the meaning a human can grok from any given sentence is bounded like a ieee floating point number.

                but i find it somewhat interesting that whereas all ieee floats have a certain amount of meaning they can carry around/a set amount of decimal places, the way we encode implicit meanings and tones into language is uneven, it's not character by character (but it can be if you add an accent or tone to a character even in non tonal languages),

                like, what if you could design a number system more like human language where the decimal places somehow only showed up under certain conditions (maybe you could argue complex numbers are kinda like that, since the imaginary or real parts will appear and re apper under certain operations)

                could you design a number system or an algebra in such a way that it was up for interpretation lol (or if not why not)

                one thing is that you can interpret numbers in terms of geometry, but the interpretation is one to one, and thus boring compared to the interpretability of strings.

                also maybe lambda calculus is somewhat interpretable in this way, and it can encode numbers and algebraic rules

                maybe logical conclusion of this train of thought is the IO monad XD

      • captn3m0 2 months ago

        Brandon Sanderson has a nice video on advice on how he writes characters that are smarter than him: (~5 minutes).

        tl;dw: There's different axes of intelligence, and you can setup the situation perfectly to fake the character's intelligence. You can also fake wisdom/intelligence by taking as much time as you need to come up with the smartest/best response to a situation.

        Doesn't apply exactly here (He has written Gods, but they are still "mostly" human except for knowing a lot more about their world), but it's good advice.

      • dmitriid 2 months ago

        > a real protagonist would be doing things Keys can't even imagine, which sound like gibberish

        Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Lewis Padgett explores this to an extent.

      • WalterBright 2 months ago

        I always kinda avoid scifi stories about super-intelligent beings. There's no way one could write about what they'd be like.

        But I make one exception - Brain Wave by Poul Anderson. In it, ordinary people become much more intelligent. Their speech patterns change into very few words, because a more intelligent listener would be better at inferring meaning from the context.

    • notahacker 2 months ago

      It would have felt much more plausible with a twist at the end where his "superintelligence" was revealed to be a set of delusions related to his cognitive impairment...

      • skinnymuch 2 months ago

        People should check out Flowers for Charlie, an episode on the most excellent show It’s Always Sunny.

    • bgroat 2 months ago

      That's wild because it's my exact opposite take.

      I found it to be one of the most thoughtful explorations of super-intelligence and how it becomes qualitatively different than conventional intelligence.

      I came away from it thinking, "This is Limitless if it were written by a grownup"

      • softcactus 2 months ago

        Exactly how I felt. It explores what motivations of a super-intelligence might be in a way that I hadn't seen before.

        I understand the commenter's sentiment though--it's difficult to read an earnest story about a super intelligent trans-human because the archetype of "cool and collected super genius" has been done to death and has become cringeworthy.

        • kragen 2 months ago

          The most interesting book I've found on the motivations of a super-genius is Notes on the Collection of Transfers.

          • watt 2 months ago

            I looked at it and seems this is a collection of inane ramblings about a supremely irrelevant subject: change my mind?

            • kragen 2 months ago

              You're beginning to get the idea, if a bit shorthanded in the empathy department.

        • bgroat 2 months ago

          I want to avoid spoilers... but my favourite element was the inevitability of certain individuals being made aware of each other.

          At a certain scale I believe one exerts a "gravitational" influence, and this book explored that neatly

    • canes123456 2 months ago

      I feel exactly the same way. I believe it was the first story he wrote and it really shows.

    • darkerside 2 months ago

      You probably just didn't get it.

      Just kidding

      • cwillu 2 months ago

        “You're not good at ‹game›, you just do random things for an hour and then you randomly win.” --words I've heard

        • 1123581321 2 months ago

          Was this Twilight Imperium? :)

          • cwillu 2 months ago

            If I said “no”, would you believe me?

  • nine_k 2 months ago

    Of Chiang's works, I think “72 Letters“ is the most impressive: it unfolds events and ideas worth a 1000-page novel in like 120 KB of text.

  • tzs 2 months ago

    Another interesting story featuring enhanced intelligence is Poul Anderson's novel "Brain Wave".

    Briefly, there is an energy damping field that projects in a beam from something near the center of our galaxy. One of the effects of this field is to slow down the speed of neural activity. The Sun's orbit around the galaxy takes it through this field periodically.

    When it enters the field the effect is to make everything with a brain about 1/5th as smart as it was, which usually results in a mass extinction of any species that depended on its brain to survive. That's what did in the dinosaurs for instance which had been near human intelligence before that (the book is from 1954 which is before we figured out what really did them in).

    Humans evolved while the Earth was in the field, evolving neurons and brain structures that can get to normal human intelligence even with the degrading effects of the field.

    The start of the novel is set when Earth moves out of the field and so over the next few weeks everything with a brain gets about 5 times smarter than it was before.

    That has lots of consequences. For example a lot of how we handle animals is based on the animals not being smart. It gets a lot harder to be a pig farmer, say, when your pigs get human genius level intelligence. Of course the farmer is a lot smarter too, but still it will take some time to upgrade the farm to deal with super-genius pigs and the pigs aren't going to just idly wait for that.

    The novel looks at that and a ton of other changes as Earth adapts and develops to deal with this.

  • uniqueuid 2 months ago

    Chiang is great. His collection of short stories - exhalation - is a ton of fun.

  • johnchristopher 2 months ago

    Ted Chiang is among my top three speculative fiction [0] authors. Others are Stefen Baxter and Robert Charles Wilson.

    [0] at parties, it sounds better than SF

  • mati365 2 months ago

    Mine too but I was always wondering why haven't the main character mind been used by scientist to improving method used in book?

  • Taylor_OD 2 months ago

    I agree. IT feels like the continuation of the Flowers story that I wanted in a rereading.

fairity 2 months ago

I think too many of us believe that intelligence is valuable, in and of itself. Instead, I think we should value personal excellence. That is, making the most of the intelligence you’re given.

The arc of intelligence in Flowers of Algernon is the same arc that we’ll all experience over our lifetime. With old age, we, too, will lose our intelligence. If we value intelligence, in and of itself, we’ll eventually face a crisis of sorts. But, if we value making the most of our intelligence, we are resilient.

Applying this framework to Charlie, there’s much less to be sad about. He made the most of the intelligence he was gifted, and that’s what really matters.

  • erybodyknows 2 months ago

    I just read this story for the first time and gathered similar insights on character, intelligence, and personal excellence.

    What stood out to me most was that he consistently tried to excel with what he was given. To do better for himself, and to help those around him.

    Another point that stood out to me is that from his most gifted vantage point, he correctly identifies the all too human fallibility of his Scientific Observers. Jealousy, greed, and feelings of inferiority.

  • svat 2 months ago

    > If we value intelligence, in and of itself, we’ll eventually face a crisis of sorts.

    Related, from

    > […] pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

    > Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

    • fairity 2 months ago

      Thanks, I hadn’t heard this speech before. It was a good reminder to live consciously - that is, choosing our values for ourselves. But, my biggest takeaway was that “the whole trick is keeping the truth (your values) up front in daily consciousness”, which I’ve found to be 90%+ of the challenge.

  • maemre 2 months ago

    I like this reading of the story a lot (although I didn't read it this way when I read the book originally). It reminds me of how Camus approaches to making peace with the absurd: recognizing the absurd and creating a personal meaning in order to get free from the meaninglessness (I might be totally off base with this interpretation of Camus).

sslapec 2 months ago

My elder brother is mentally challenged due to lack of oxygen when he was born. I had this idea a few years ago of how would he experience the world if he'd suddenly become healthy. How would he deal with his previous life, etc. I once mentioned my thoughts to my boss during a lunch and he told me there's already a novel about it. That's how I've discovered Flowers for Algernon.

  • marktangotango 2 months ago

    > My elder brother is mentally challenged due to lack of oxygen when he was born.

    My wife had a great uncle who was similarly afflicted; at home child birth, this sort of brain damage was not uncommon in the early part of the last century. He was non verbal, he communicated in grunts and gestures. When I knew him his family had all passed away. My mother in law, his niece was his guardian.

    He lived in an assisted living facility for the 30+ years before he died a few years ago. My wife made a point of our family visiting him for the holidays. We were often the only visitors he'd have for the entire year. Then his health took a turn and my wife became more involved. We visited him one final time when he was in hospice and near death. Seeing that poor shell of a man in obvious pain was the saddest, most pitiful thing I have ever seen. It broke my heart to see what had become of his life, and how his parents would have Grieved to see what became of him.

    Dear internet stranger, I hope you're able to cherish the time you have with your brother.

  • dontbenebby 2 months ago

    Sorry about your brother, I had a friend die waiting on an organ transplant when I was in single digits and I have no siblings.

    People focus a lot of things like being nice regardless of race or social class, but trauma holds you back and no algorithm takes it into account that I've seen, just measures things to the side.

    I'm glad you had a supportive leader who gave you something enriching for the soul to read.

    • sslapec 2 months ago

      That's kind, thank you. I'm sorry for your friend. I hope you did cope with the trauma somehow.

      • dontbenebby 2 months ago

        I'm glad you thought it was kind, I try to be when I can.

        We were in single digits, agewise. Appalachian youths, forever at risk, but this was before the internet became what it is now.

        At first I coped by trying to get people to opt in to organ donation, because he had been waiting for a liver.

        Then later I tried to get people registered to vote, so we could change the system that traumatized us.

        And finally, after many years of being a peaceful activist, I put the word out that if they are going to seize power and never return it, then every promise made to that day is void and someone like me might make every piece of electronics in their McMansions or municipalities fail like they're cameras in Metropolitan Correctional Center just before they get in the ground with Jeffrey Epstein if that's what it takes to ensure folks never abuse their access ever again.

        (In short: I coped with it by becoming a dissident, but that does not bring you joy, and I very purposefully avoided working with anyone under 18 on these matters because it is unethical to teach children that such a life is cool or fun, rather than a path that should be chosen as an absolute last resort.)

        • nomorecodehere8 2 months ago

          There is no way you will change the system other than to revoke it the way the current woke generation is trying to do. Revocation hurts others and makes this approach anathema to them.

          What eventuates is hate, mistrust, opportunism and fear. Eventually the united states will fail because of magnified personal injury delivered to agenda that does not meet the test of improvement for everyone. Because we are short sighted, intolerant and arrogant. Like you.

  • rayiner 2 months ago

    Awakenings with Robin Williams (in a serious role) is another exploration of that issue. Incredibly touching movie.

  • nobody9999 2 months ago

    >My elder brother is mentally challenged due to lack of oxygen when he was born. I had this idea a few years ago of how would he experience the world if he'd suddenly become healthy. How would he deal with his previous life, etc. I once mentioned my thoughts to my boss during a lunch and he told me there's already a novel about it. That's how I've discovered Flowers for Algernon.

    I have a close relative with signficant dementia.

    Which, in this case, really is like a reverse Flowers for Algernon. The person in question was incredibly smart, well educated, erudite, resourceful and very successful in her chosen field.

    She was always my go to person for career advice, as she had both the experience and the cognitive skills to insightfully analyze circumstances and make cogent, relevant recommendations.

    As she declined, she was still compensating for her partner's declining capacities.

    But that's all gone now. Some part of her is still in there (honestly, I hope not too much as she'd be incredibly angry and unhappy with her cognitive decline), but she's no longer able to express reasoned ideas or even have a normal conversation (she might answer a question if you ask and she might not -- and even then it's difficult for her to express herself except in the most basic terms) with other people.

    And that fills me with sadness because I've lost that wonderful human who was a part of my life for so long.

    It may seem cruel, but it feels almost worse than if she'd died. Her body is there. Some small vestige of her personality still exists, but the person I knew is gone.

    I still love her and my family and I make sure she knows she's loved and gets the care she requires, but I mourn the loss of the woman she was. :(

    I read Flowers for Algernon (FFA) as a child and was quite troubled by Charlie's story arc. Especially as at the peak of his abilities, he really turns into an arrogant asshole with little patience for the idiots (as he perceived them) around him.

    I wasn't glad when Charlie's decline happened, but I was struck with the compassion and caring of the science team who did this to him.

    That opens up some ethical questions, but I'm sure those will be addressed elsewhere in this discussion.

    • kelnos 2 months ago

      > It may seem cruel, but it feels almost worse than if she'd died.

      I don't think it's cruel at all. For the person suffering dementia, they are no longer that person, and they must be confused all the time, and stressed out about being confused. It sounds like a miserable way to live, if you can call that "living". For everyone else, the person they love is gone, but there is a constant physical reminder of who they used to be. Everyone loses.

      > Especially as at the peak of his abilities, he really turns into an arrogant asshole with little patience for the idiots (as he perceived them) around him.

      I think that's to be expected; consider if you gave a 3-year-old the mental capacity of a genius-level adult. They don't have the emotional development or maturity to deal with it. Charlie is similar. I actually think of it the other way: Charlie adapted remarkably well to his newfound intelligence, given his lack of understanding of the world beforehand. He certainly wasn't perfect, but I think many/most people would fare worse.

quanto 2 months ago

    She said dont be scared Charlie you done so much with 
    so little I think you deserv it most of all. 
Charlie was a man with a good heart, motivation, and self-awareness, and yet the world was not so kind to him. The story reminds me of something I read somewhere: be kind to less intelligent people -- the world is already not so kind to them.
  • ChrisMarshallNY 2 months ago

    Not just intelligence. We can easily find reasons to feel that people should be shunned/excluded/shut out.

    I think there was a posting here, a couple of days ago, about the pleasure folks get, from bullying members of an "outgroup." Heck, I had an exchange with someone on this very platform, earlier today, who ended up "going there" (I left them screeching into the void. It seemed to make them feel better). It's really quite difficult to resist getting drawn into that kind of stuff. Really visceral. Takes real effort to tear myself away.

    It's very primitive. The desire to shun "other" is embedded into our BIOS. Difficult to counter. Also, the desire to fight, when we perceive that "other" is somehow encroaching on "our" turf.

    I've had to do a lot of personal navel-gazing in the last couple of years. Had to face some rather unpleasant personal truths. I have had to let go of a lot of cherished little turd dolls that I've been clutching to my bosom.

    Fortunately, I have a framework for that kind of work.

    • HeyLaughingBoy 2 months ago

      > It's really quite difficult to resist getting drawn into that kind of stuff.


      This took me back to my middle twenties and disengaging myself from an argument with someone who had parked blocking my driveway. As I was discussing it later with the friend I was renting the apartment from, I said pretty much those words, "it's hard not letting yourself be drawn into someone else's anger." He agreed and we had a pretty good conversation about that.

      Nothing to add other than you reminded me of an interesting afternoon long ago :-)

  • dvt 2 months ago

    > be kind to less intelligent people -- the world is already not so kind to them.

    This feels weirdly patronizing. Why not just treat every person with humanity and respect and be kind to them regardless of any particular trait or lack thereof?

    • basilgohar 2 months ago

      I see it as more of a reminder and to pay attention. We all have ranges/spectrums at which we operate. You can say, "shouldn't you just be kind to everyone", and the answer is, "yes, of course". But then, how that kindness is shaped and applied – for example, kindness can be offering help, or waiting to be asked for help (but being prepared to help). I think it's ultimately about awareness of how you can be kind in different ways.

      For those that are deemed less intelligent, that kindness can take the shape of increased patience with things that seem obvious or easy to others, whereas for folks operating at a level more similar to you, you might behave differently justifiably. This is just one example that crossed my mind in this case.

      We understand that dealing with children and dealing with adults is frequently different, and we wouldn't call that patronizing, we'd call it operating at the level appropriate for them. We might tolerate something from a children, and deem acceptable for their level, while tolerating the same thing for an adult in the same context would be considered unacceptable. There are all kinds of different ways to behave differently in different context.

      So, yes, "choose kindness", but I took the statement beyond its face value to mean "exert yourself to be kind" and find out what that means in the most appropriate way based on the situation.

    • Banana699 2 months ago

      It is not patronizing, unless any differential kindness whatsoever is patronizing. But this is clearly not the case : being overly kind to war refugees more than other immigrants is not patronizing, it's acceptance of the empirical fact that they are (with high probability) the least fortunate type of immigrants and a rational moral reaction to that fact. Similarly, being overly kind to your one friend who had just lost a family member is not patronizing. And so on. Off course you shouldn't appear to be more kind to them, because this is really just showing off\virtue signalling and it's insulting to them, but you should be more kind to them, without appearing to be so. It's difficult, but doable.

      Less intelligent people lost a genetic lottery (like a lot of us with varying degrees), but the particular round they lost on is one of the worst, in practical terms. They deserve more kindness and help. No patronization in that.

    • kelnos 2 months ago

      This feels like an "all lives matter!" kind of response. The parent was specifically addressing the type of person who might be dismissive or unkind toward people of lower intelligence. Yes, there are people who are unkind toward all sorts of people, and that's not good either, but that's besides the point.

  • jl6 2 months ago

    Also: we are all less intelligent than someone, so treat people right because soon it will be your turn.

    • swayvil 2 months ago

      Also, smart and stupid look much alike (in that both experience a state of few unsolved riddles). So beware.

      Frankly, I think the desire (I want to crush somebody) comes first and the justification (he's a fool so it's only just that I crush him) comes second.

  • ta8645 2 months ago

    There is a prevailing contempt these days for less intelligent and less educated people, that is very unseemly and disheartening.

    • dotancohen 2 months ago

      Such contempt is not unique to "these days". And for what it's worth, there is no less contempt for the educated, never mind the intelligent, among those subcultures who praise and harvest ignorance.

      • Barrin92 2 months ago

        >Such contempt is not unique to "these days"

        It certainly is among otherwise self-declared tolerant people. The Atlantic wrote a great piece a few years ago called 'The War on Stupid people', pointing out that in communities that have strict rules of conduct concerning just about any form of discrimination, you'll find people casually joking about 'darwin awards' when some stupid person dies a grueling death. Imagine you'd introduce one for obese people in a tolerant, young internet community.

        Intelligence is increasingly conflated with human worth, and people who scoff at every form of inequality these days will gladly make an exception for intelligence, calling it meritocratic. The word itself is a good indicator of the change in attitude, given that Michael Young who coined it did so for satirical purposes, describing a future British society that is governed by an undemocratic elite selected through IQ tests.

        • KerrAvon 2 months ago

          No, I don’t buy it. What defines “smart” in those communities in the first place?

    • swayvil 2 months ago

      In the past our stories had "the wise fool" and "the noble pauper". We don't really do that now. All of our heros are rich, smart and beautiful. It's a crassification no doubt. Maybe a shift in the target demographic is to blame.

    • aldebran 2 months ago

      Is that the case? My experience is that many people am have less patience for people who are willfully ignorant and intentionally anti-intelligence and anti-progress. Given the political climate, at least in the US, would you blame them?

      In my experience, I find people more understanding than ever about genuine medical issues and things that aren’t choices that someone has made - something they’re born with.

      I think the two are very different.

  • exysle 2 months ago

    I like to think that the gods mankind and corporations create, artilects, will see mentally disabled and geniuses the same way - it will only care whether or not they are good people, since their intelligence is incomparable to the artilect.

  • Ma8ee 2 months ago

    I prefer the quote from Vonnegut:

    > God damn it, you've got to be kind.

    Being kind to is not the exception you grant some special people, but what you are supposed to be by default.

uniqueuid 2 months ago

Despite all my rational efforts; all the maths and research - there is a speck of insight that only poetry and literature can reach. It's irritating and comforting at the same time.

  • vagab0nd 2 months ago

    Thank you for this. This is exactly how I felt but could not articulate.

    • uniqueuid 2 months ago

      Thanks, that makes me happy.

      You might also like this phrase I adore, which expresses the same sentiment in a more general way:

      "And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning."

      Of course, Anthony Burgess is much more of a poet than I am.

  • sydthrowaway 2 months ago

    All the world’s combined poetry and literature won’t get you to the moon, or solve the world’s energy crisis. It’s all a bunch of tosh - don’t stop building.

    • marginalia_nu 2 months ago

      All the mathematics in the world can't tell you why you would want to go to the moon.

    • uniqueuid 2 months ago

      I never said that poetry gets you to the moon.

      But when you’re there - how do you cope with the heat death of the universe, or the loss of your close ones, or how do you justify being there? How do you find joy in your mornings, and how do you empathise with others, the living and the once-living?

    • messe 2 months ago

      No, but it might make you just as happy or fulfilled.

    • bcbrown 2 months ago

      To get to the moon, you first have to want to get to the moon. Literature excels at disseminating dreams and desires.

djsavvy 2 months ago

This story hit me hard when I read it as a kid.

When I was young, I read another story with a similar emotional texture that I've been trying to find again for years now. It had a mentally challenged boy who worked in a restaurant with a lobster tank in the front, and the boy loved the lobster as a pet and stopped the restaurant staff from killing and serving the lobster. But one day when the boy was gone the lobster was killed.

I don't remember much but I've been looking for it for ages. I hope I can find it and read it again someday.

  • ginnungagap 2 months ago

    This is probably enough information for the folks at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Stackexchange ( to identify the story, they get similar story identification requests all the time and are crazy good at it.

    If you do ask make sure to include approximately when you read it and please let me know, I'm curious about your story too now!

    • TedDoesntTalk 2 months ago

      Pleas post it in a reply if you find out the name. My son loves lobsters and I’d like to get it for him.

  • _tom_ 2 months ago

    Reddit tip of my tongue is also good for IDing old stories.

  • killerstorm 2 months ago

    What hits me hard is that the author emphasized that Charlie had the strongest emotional connection with Algernon, the mouse.

    I guess the reason for that is not only that Charlie saw himself in Algernon, as they were in a similar situation. But Algernon was the only being which did judge Charlie and his IQ.

sandworm101 2 months ago

I always hated this story. For me, the underlying theme is one of class and social structure. The illiterate man is lifted above his situation by science. He is then hammered back down. This is a story about how science cannot change the underlying "natural" state of a person. It is a lesson for scientists about not messing with god-given realities. I also don't like the linking of one's job to one's intelligence. The two are rarely directly related.

The opposite to Flowers for Algernon is Captain America. A weak man is improved by science and goes on to be the champion of his nation: Science overcomes nature and God-given limitations can be overcome by government-backed scientific wonders.

  • cowtools 2 months ago

    I don't think there is a single point in this comment that I agree with.

    >This is a story about how science cannot change the underlying "natural" state of a person.

    I don't think that's necessarily true. In the setting of the story, current the state of the art prohibits this. But It doesn't really comment on whether that's a fundamental limitation. The purpose of having the protagonist descend back into retardation is to force the reader to empathize more - and perhaps reconcile with their own age-related descent in intelligence in their own life.

    > I also don't like the linking of one's job to one's intelligence. The two are rarely directly related.

    Really. So for example, in this story there was the retarded boy working as a dishwasher at the diner. Do you think that portrayal is completely unrealistic because in the real world retarded people usually become astronauts, surgeons, or lawyers? I think in the real world you'll find the mentally disabled working menial jobs for little respect or pay.

    >The opposite to Flowers for Algernon is Captain America. A weak man is improved by science and goes on to be the champion of his nation: Science overcomes nature and God-given limitations can be overcome by government-backed scientific wonders.

    I agree they are quite opposite in the sense that Flowers for Algernon is an endearing short story with commentary on the nature of intelligence, respect and social mobility, while Captain America is a marketable franchise designed to sell comics and merchandise to children. Of course Captain America is simpler and more optimistic than a short story: Like most comic books, I can only assume it doesn't convey any actual message besides "good guys always win".

    • dontbenebby 2 months ago

      > I think in the real world you'll find the mentally disabled working menial jobs for little respect or pay.

      Often because people here, on this site, think any policy that would put them on a different path is akin to communism.

      (Read up on places like "Good"will, where folks from Brooklyn or whatever come to pick up things given under coercion less you get fined for improper trash disposal, at stores where the disabled are paid less than minimum wage under similar sorts of logic that lead to the holocaust.)

    • sandworm101 2 months ago

      I have known lawyers who struggle with aspergers. I was at law school with a man who had tourettes. He had to take his exams in a separate room due to his outbursts. Ive also met professionals with obsessive compulsive disorder so bad that, in the past, they might have been locked up. Mental illness, even mental disability, does not preclude as many vocations as most people think.

      • stickfigure 2 months ago

        I don't think the kind of mental disability described in Flowers For Algernon fits in the same category as aspergers, tourettes, OCD, or mental illness (as we typically use the term).

        I suspect Forrest Gump does not actually exist.

        • quacked 2 months ago

          My two siblings have "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome", and I do not. (All three of us were adopted, each from different families.) I grew up with them and Flowers For Algernon resonates very deeply with me, as it is very closely analogous to how they grew up.

      • Dwelve 2 months ago

        Shouting random things is not the same as lacking the cognitive capacity to EVER learn to tie your shoes. How on earth are you making that comparison?!

  • bdowling 2 months ago

    > The opposite to Flowers for Algernon is Captain America.

    They're not opposites, they're orthogonal. Flowers for Algernon is a science fiction story. Science fiction stories are usually (always?) about how the human experience is affected by some hypothetical new technology. The new technology often has a fatal flaw or unexpected consequences. The stories are often tragic.

    Captain America, on the other hand, is not science fiction. Captain America is a comic superhero and his stories are usually (always?) heroic adventures. Heroic adventures follow a predictable pattern beginning with a call to adventure and ending with the hero returning home having slain the dragon.

    • sandworm101 2 months ago

      If we want to be exact, Captain America isn't even a hero story. It is WWII propaganda. There is no end to the epic, just a constant stream of new nazi dragons to slay. The hero never develops after the origin story, which makes it perfect for episodic comic books.

    • angrais 2 months ago

      Your second paragraph: could it not be summarised as "fantasy" and thus sci-fi Vs fantasy?

  • TedDoesntTalk 2 months ago

    Interesting interpretation. To me, this book has nothing to do with science. There is very little science mentioned and even the wonder that changes Charlie is not mentioned in any detail that I remember.

    His change could have easily been caused by something else besides science like a head injury that magically and temporarily reversed his handicap. And the story would have still been beautiful.

    It’s more like a literary device; deus ex machina followed later by diabolus ex machina.

    • kelnos 2 months ago

      I agree with you in part. I never really read the grandparent's themes of "don't mess with nature, scientists full of hubris!" from Flowers. To me it was just a beautifully sad story of gaining something precious, and then losing it, while watching yourself lose it, piece by piece. The idea that it's not something external and tangible, but is a story of mental faculties, makes it all the more tragic.

      And we can draw parallels to conditions like dementia. Charlie experienced a full life of learning and decline in a matter of a few months.

      I do think of this as a science fiction story. Not "hard" sci-fi, but still sci-fi. To me it's the examination of what a scientific achievement could do, but for a fatal flaw. I think it is interesting and important to the story that Charlie's experience was caused deliberately, and not through an accident or other means.

  • tyingq 2 months ago

    Everybody has their own take. There's a way to interpret the book where you see that traits like kindness might be more important than intelligence.

  • kelnos 2 months ago

    > This is a story about how science cannot change the underlying "natural" state of a person.

    I think it's easier to look at it as a cautionary take. Many scientists (and engineers, and other types of creators) spend far too little time thinking about the implications of what they create. Certainly that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to improve people's lives, but we should be extremely careful. "First: do no harm" is a guiding principle that medical doctors are expected to follow, but many scientists perhaps don't think about enough.

    Was it even ethical to perform this experiment on Charlie, someone who likely did not have the cognitive ability to understand well enough to consent? I wonder about that.

    > The illiterate man is lifted above his situation by science.

    He wasn't merely illiterate (and he wasn't illiterate; he could read and write, just not well). He was developmentally disabled. He didn't have the mental capacity to learn to read and comprehend better, or to write and spell better.

    > I also don't like the linking of one's job to one's intelligence. The two are rarely directly related.

    I don't think that's true. Certainly not for the example at hand. I think it's pretty common for developmentally disabled people to hold fairly simple, menial service jobs, assuming they can work at all.

    I have a feeling -- please correct me if I'm wrong -- that you're railing against the kind of "not very smart" person who fails upwards into high levels of management at a company. Sure, in that case a person's intelligence was not well-linked to that person's job. But this story is examining intelligence on a different level: not just the ability to learn, but the ability to understand the world around you. This failing-upwards executive may lack the ability to learn sufficient competence to earn these sorts of promotions based on merit, but most likely can understand the world well enough in order to exploit it to gain these unearned promotions.

  • thow_away_soon 2 months ago

    I see Flowers for Algernon more as a tale of social relations regarding people on extreme IQ positions. The book would be less tragic without the "hammering down", but I don't think it would be better. We are all prone to a decrease in mental capabilities as time passes, so that part of the book makes it more relatable to me.

    > It is a lesson for scientists about not messing with god-given realities

    Maybe by comics standards, but not really. I mean, it is not like they had decades of research and experiments, and that sort of thing doesn't seem the kind of breakthrough you can make quickly. While fiction, I think it is a tad bit more like real science than comic books science

  • Dwelve 2 months ago

    "Science overcomes nature" is one of the most boring, unthoughtful, cliché stories people can write. No, science does not do that. At best you can say progress makes fighting nature a little easier, but wes sure as hell are not going to "overcome nature" - ever. Your desire to "overcome nature" IS nature. It's absolutely paradoxical to overcome it, you're just doing what nature tells you to do, lol.

tanseydavid 2 months ago

I was first exposed to it in movie form, called Charly and starring Cliff Robertson.

It had a big impact on me and I immediately wanted it in book form after seeing the movie.

  • icedchai 2 months ago

    I remember reading the book back in the late 80's. I was probably in 7th grade? Enjoyable book. I'll check out the movie.

photochemsyn 2 months ago

There's something curiously American about Flowers for Algernon... our general popular culture tends to value physical achievement (the athlete) more than mental achievement (the nerd/geek). So here's the story of how the co-workers/peers of a mentally disabled individual, Charlie, (who they ridicule initially) react to the reversal of that disability (with suspicion and distrust) and then the re-imposition of that disability (with protective behavior, and a degree of guilt and shame). The whole story is really more illustrative of the co-worker's behavior & values than anything else.

Other cultures seem to have a more balanced view (i.e. mental development and physical development should go hand-in-hand, and an either-or approach is considered unhealthy). American culture in contrast developed the stereotypes of 'dumb jock' and 'scrawny nerd' - Hollywood's fault, maybe?

  • solardev 2 months ago

    One layer deeper, it was also illustrative of how the supposedly smarter people (the researchers and teacher) also reacted to his journey, and of who's "allowed" to be smart without being perceived as threatening. It's not as straightforward as just "jocks vs nerds", but how the scientists work with each other, how the teacher treats him vs the researchers, how the lab mouse is alternately thought of either disposable or a beloved pet, the many different degrees and directions of otherization between all the characters, etc.

    It's social commentary, sure, but a relatively nuanced one at that :) By my reading/IMHO, the isolation, loneliness, and insecurity/otherization of all the characters in the story were heavier than any overt comparison of athleticism vs intellectualism.

    American culture isn't just athletic, it's also quite shallow: everyone projects success and happiness but suffer deeper down and are afraid to introspect, share vulnerabilities, or form meaningful communities. The invisible individualism causes suffering both for the characters in the book and real people in our society. It's an interesting thing to think about, no? Hollywood these days doesn't celebrate raw martial athleticism as much anymore, but the rugged individualist hero (who's both smart and physically somewhat capable, like Marvel or DC heroes) is typically also socially dysfunctional and emotionally underdeveloped. The indie and foreign films are a lot better at capturing nuance... our blockbusters are mostly still just broken-men-blowing-things-up kinda deals.

    • pmoriarty 2 months ago

      "American culture isn't just athletic, it's also quite shallow: everyone projects success and happiness but suffer deeper down and are afraid to introspect, share vulnerabilities, or form meaningful communities."

      There isn't just one American culture, there are many... with people not infrequently belonging to many subcultures. We should be wary of painting America (or any other country) with one broad brush.

      • solardev 2 months ago

        Sure, but you can group and subdivide cultures however you like. There are subcultures within subcultures, yet at the same time there is a broadly American culture and maybe a broadly Western one, etc. Like species, there's no precise test for a unit of culture, it's just different zoom levels... each level of grouping or subdivision has its uses.

        Relative to other national identities I've had experience with, I believe that Americans in particular are quite obsessed with aesthetics, everything from hair color to deodorants to artificially aligning and whitening teeth, to identifying with musical subgenres as a method of personal belonging and appearance. If there is no American culture then there is no Americana, which I don't believe, and would be a great loss to the cultural richness of the modern era... everything from Blues to bluegrass to Blue's Clues to blue jeans.

        American culture has a richness that's hard to appreciate or even recognize these days, when it's so embroiled in modern culture wars, but it's definitely there and definitely distinct from, say, Japanese culture of the postwar years or 1800s France.

      • Ma8ee 2 months ago

        Of course, but there are some themes and tropes that was rarely found outside American movies, and if you now find them in other western movies, it’s because of the disproportionate influence American culture have had since the end of WW2.

  • dekhn 2 months ago

    Not exactly a direct response, but see which imho is the best statement for gifted education that I have ever seen. It anticipates the current situation better than any speculative fiction.

    • pmoriarty 2 months ago

      Why do you think that? Exceptional people are highly valued in today's society... Examples don't even need to be mentioned.. we all know their names.

      Harrison Bergeron still seems to be firmly in the realm of science fiction.

      • Viliam1234 2 months ago

        People hate intelligence, but they respect power more. Money is a form of power.

        So when the intelligent people get rich today, they are respected. But as kids, they are often bullied.

        The opposition to gifted education has the same source. If the gifted kids come from a rich family, they can get all the tutors they need anyway. And if they come from a poor family, screw them.

  • taeric 2 months ago

    I'm curious. I've never seen anything to make me think other cultures are that different in this regard. Would be interested in learning more.

    • solardev 2 months ago

      In some East Asian cultures, there isn't really a concept for a "nerd" (or conversely, a "jock"). People just learn what they can, and exercise in whatever ways they can. It's recognized that there are different ability levels in both, but they're not considered opposite parts of a spectrum.

      If you try to translate "nerd" to Chinese, for example (, there isn't really a neat translation... one of the closer translations would be something akin to a "bookworm", but even in that meaning, it's more to describe someone who's deeply interested in a very esoteric topic (say, the springtime dietary preferences of Han dynasty peasants), rather than someone who's smart but socially and physically inept. If you just sit at home all day and study, people will tell you to get more exercise, but there's not really a term for that beyond "you should exercise more". It's not a taunt or a pejorative.

      It's just not assumed that these are exclusionary spheres of being; you are expected to gradually develop your mental, physical, emotional, and social skills altogether, and a lot of the cultural development is in finessing out when to use which skills, whether you're a warrior or politician or emperor.

      • taeric 2 months ago

        I don't know. This feels like it is leaning too heavily on single words. Translate aunt, and see that that is similarly difficult.

        Still, I can't and don't reject the idea. Would love to see a comprehensive study. At a personal level, I don't remember these things in school, either. They were archetypes, but nobody was a solid archetype. Such that I find it hard to believe you don't see folks through some of these lenses.

        • solardev 2 months ago

          Words (or in their case, characters & the concepts) partially define culture, though. If you don't have an easy word for something, whether it's a personality or a color, it's a foreign idea to you. Sure, someone can translate it for you and tell you what it means, but it's not the same as having it be a part of your culture. Someone can explain "tea time" to me, but as an American, it will always be a Britishism even though I understand the concepts of tea and gathering and hours. It's just not a part of my cultural existence.

          FWIW, anecdotally, I grew up in a culture much like what I described, and it wasn't until I moved to America that I learned what "nerd" meant. Nobody around me in childhood ever made that distinction. Similarly, I found it odd that Americans identified by musical genres in high school. But sure, these things would be fascinating thing to ethnographically!

          • taeric 2 months ago

            I think that has been fairly heavily disproven. That language defines culture.

            I meant my anecdote to be that I grew up in America, and didn't see this behavior at large. Outside of movies.

            Completely agreed that it is an interesting topic.

            • rayiner 2 months ago

              That’s a different point—you can’t conceptualize an orange if you don’t have a word for orange. OP is making the opposite point: you don’t have a word for orange if you don’t have oranges. The absence of a clear word (much less several) for a “nerd” stereotype might reflect a culture that doesn’t create that categorization.

              Coming from south Asian culture, for example, we don’t really have a similar concept either.

              • taeric 2 months ago

                I get that. I question that you don't have some archetypes, as well.

                That is too say, you might not have oranges, but you still have citrus fruit.

                And again, coming from southern us culture, we didn't have direct images of the stereotypes, either. That is largely a movie convenience for story telling.

            • darkerside 2 months ago

              Disproven is doing a lot of heavy lifting here. Is there a study you are citing?

              • taeric 2 months ago

                Fair. I meant my claim there more as a question. I only have vague memories of the Sapir Whorf hypothesis. Quickly scanning, I can't find anything definitive. Probably the criticism from Pinker, is what I remember?

                • solardev 2 months ago

                  OK, whoa, sorry... let's take a step back here. I did not mean to imply that language is the sole or complete determinant of culture, or anything remotely that definitive. My statement was overbroad and should've been something way more limited, like "language reflects cultural groupings" or some such. I am not a linguist or an anthro-anything, just a random guy on the internet making observations... sorry if I overstepped.

                  I did not realize the whole color relativity thing ( or the underlying linguistic models ( were under such continued debate (but of course they are, how naive of me).

                  It's an interesting thing to ponder, but I don't think my underlying claim is extraordinary -- that the ready-built groupings a language has or does not have in part reflects the commonness of their use in that culture. Essentially, that every culture has their own Venn diagrams, and those overlaps may be similar but not exactly the same across cultures. Is that more limited claim under debate? It seems self-evident to me, but that could just be my ignorance.

                  Like when I think of "French food" as an American, a certain type of restaurant comes to mind, but presumably actual French people don't categorize all their cuisines under one simplistic label like that. I know that's the case with Chinese food, at least.

                  Or other examples, the whole "is a burger a sandwich" debate, or how human races are differently perceived by cultures who don't see a lot of them, or how time is measured and communicated differently across cultures, or animal taxonomies before modern genetics and Linnean classification (e.g. a "whale" sometimes called a "whale fish" in other cultures, or whether a bumblebee is a subtype of a honeybee)... all I'm saying is that linguistic groupings evolve differently across cultures because cultures have different needs.

                  I think even the "is this really a thing outside of movies" question is actually another great example of this, where Hollywood has its own cultural groupings, and those may or may not overlap with real-world American schools (and if so, which schools in which areas/subcultures?). Or, how "nerd" and "jock" fall into relative disuse once you enter the white-collar business world, which is its own subculture with imperfect groupings like "designers (who never touch code? not necessarily)" vs "engineers (who never look at UIs? hardly)".

                  • taeric 2 months ago

                    I don't think you're claim is extraordinarily, either. I just thought it was online with some of the ideas in Sapir Whorf that have been criticized lately. I am not scanning too deep, but I can't find evidence of what I was talking about. Such that I think it is safe to say I was just wrong.

                    At any rate, I sincerely meant that I agree this is neat topic. I just wanted to put in my scepticism that this attitude was fully an American thing.

    • frostburg 2 months ago

      Well, terrible recent developments notwithstanding, Russians revere the authors of their literary canon. Arguing that a successful athlete is more important than Tolstoj or Pushkin would generally be ridiculed.

      Even here in Italy, despite an unhealthy national obsession with association football, if considering the whole body of society nobody is held in higher public regard than esteemed painters, poets, writers etc. (athletes are loved but not believed to be particularly bright).

      • taeric 2 months ago

        That doesn't seem too off to USA. Famous authors are still respected. Most authors aren't.

        I also feel that modern authors aren't given the same treatment.

  • narag 2 months ago

    That's, more or less, one of the first questions I asked in this site. Paul Graham answered with photos of the football team and the chess club. It seems there is a physical difference bigger than what I've observed in Spain and more on the side of athletes. I don't see that kind of massive teens over here in campuses.

    • KerrAvon 2 months ago

      To be honest, a USA football team is as unfair a comparison as you can get — they need to be physically bulky to be good at the sport. Baseball or basketball players would be a more useful comparison.

  • red_admiral 2 months ago

    > our general popular culture tends to value physical achievement (the athlete) more than mental achievement (the nerd/geek)

    Isn't that changing, possibly for the worse - don't you now need a college degree for almost anything above the lowest tiers?

    • photochemsyn 2 months ago

      I think there's been significant recent pushback on that trend, with more widespread recognition that skilled trades, vocational school, and non-college routes don't automatically imply second-class status (particularly considering the high costs and debt college grads get saddled with).

      However, as far as 'elite colleges', there is this unhealthy trend towards a more 19th-century British posh/prole divide in the educational system, but that's been going on for some time. That's not about quality of education so much as elite networking schemes and the creation of an American aristocracy.

DrTung 2 months ago

Long time ago I read a novel called Brain Wave by Paul Anderson (it predates Flowers for Algernon by about 10 years).

It has a similar theme of suddenly acquired intelligence but for the whole planet. I you like Flowers for Algernon you'll like Brain Wave.

gHA5 2 months ago

See also "Flowers for Charlie", S9E8 of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

  • abcanthur 2 months ago

    For a very similar but different up and down story arc that both makes one appreciate the value of one's own mental faculties, and stirs compassion for those with diminished abilities, I highly recommend the movie "Awakenings." De Niro and Robin Williams, based on an Oliver Sacks book, which I haven't read but it probably great.

    • jcadam 2 months ago

      Too sad to watch more than once.

      • SV_BubbleTime 2 months ago

        It’s fine, I’m the next episode Charlie goes back to bashing rats.

amai 2 months ago

It is the story of growing up as a kid, then becoming a smart adult, and then growing old and stupid again condensed to a much shorter time frame. That is why everyone can relate to it in some way.

WaffleIronMaker 2 months ago

I read this so long ago, but nothing else I've read has used the very medium of language to communicate character development so effectively.

JohnJamesRambo 2 months ago

One of my very favorite books. Read at a young age; it would be hard to say what parts of myself are me and what parts came from this book and became me.

dc-programmer 2 months ago

This was a formative read for me many years ago but only recently realized there is also a novel version. Has anyone here read both?

  • solardev 2 months ago

    I've only read the novel... didn't realize there was a short story version of it until just now. The short story reads a lot like, well, a short version of how I remember the novel to be.

    FWIW the novel was also excellent and is one of my all-time favorite books. As someone who is smart but not that smart, in a culture (software/tech) where intelligence is fetishly worshipped to the detriment of other personality traits, this was a very humbling, humanizing, and deeply touching read.

    EDIT: Actually, I just read the short story version. The story is essentially the same, as you'd expect, but the pacing suffered a little bit IMO. It was more believable in the longer form, where plot developments happened more gradually and the characters were fleshed out more. The novelization has more emotional impact because it was a smoother journey (at least as I remembered it) vs the rapid progression of the short story version. But, granted, it didn't help that I already knew the basic premise before reading the shorter version, so YMMV. Still, if you have time, why not go for the full thing? It's the sort of story that invites quiet contemplation instead of quick digestion.

  • nathell 2 months ago

    I have. I started with the novel, in a Polish translation, when I was maybe 13, and it had resonated with me so much that to this day I consider it _the_ most important book I’ve ever read. A formative read, indeed.

    I read the short story a few years after that. I think it’s the essence; I perceive it as a distillation of the novel (rather than the novel a dilution of the story, though I’m aware the story was first.) I guess had I started with it, I’d be considering it _the_ most important short story I’ve ever read today.

  • remoquete 2 months ago

    It’s commonly agreed that the short version is way better.

    • jstx1 2 months ago

      I would have said the opposite - I like the few changes in the novel and I think that the whole story is a bit more impactful when it takes a bit more time instead of being very compressed like the short version is.

    • ghaff 2 months ago

      The novel and film are "fine" as I recall but the short story is the real classic.

  • tyrust 2 months ago

    The novel is short enough that I'd recommend it. If you really don't read much, though, the short story gets the point across.

    Either way, highly recommended.

Banana699 2 months ago

One of the few books (perhaps the only) that made me cry against my will. It almost made me cry uncontrollably again now when one comment quoted a section with the protoganist writing.

I think it was one key building block that made me an anti-natalist. It made me hate existence, it filled me with rage about how unfair genetics and evolution in general are.

timoth3y 2 months ago

This book really it me hard when I read it as a kid. When I re-read it as an adult it was still amazing and a very different, more subtle work.

I think the reason it resonates so much with the young adult audience is that Charlie represents the life they are just starting to go though.

We all start out helpless, ignorant, and dependent. We grow into our primes and achieve amazing things. We then lose our abilities and facilities as we age and become dependent again.

But through all these changes, who am I? What makes me a good and worthwhile person when my abilities change and no one else really understands?

openbrian 2 months ago
  • the_af 2 months ago

    Interesting that this movie bears no relation at all to the Stephen King short story of the same title on which it claimed to be based.

    (In the short story, the titular lawnmower man is a faun-likely creature, working for the god Pan, who literally eats the lawn's grass with his own mouth)

pmoriarty 2 months ago

If you liked the story don't ever read the book.

The author apparently felt the story didn't have enough sex in it, so he added a bunch of it to the book, along with a big helping of Freudian analysis. Ugh...

  • jwmcq 2 months ago

    Fully agreed. There seemed to be a trend in mid-20th century sci-fi for authors to expand short stories into full books, and I've yet to find an example where the novel was an improvement.

ricardolopes 2 months ago

I remember reading this book in my teenage years and being moved by its story. I still think about it, and it's one I'd definitely recommend.

I wonder how it got to the top of hn all of a sudden though.

rincebrain 2 months ago

I've not read this, despite many people I trust suggesting it to me, because I am familiar at a high level with the flow of the story, and having once experienced a vaguely similarly unfortunate event[1] to the latter half, I do not want to see how I react to reading it unless I am prepared to burn a lot of time on the emotional fallout.

[1] -

fritztastic 2 months ago

We read this in 8th grade, and I remember connecting to it very deeply. I think I related to it because when I was very young I was mostly oblivious to the people around me, I lived in my own imagination a lot of the time- probably to escape the traumatic reality I was living in. When I grew older I began to be more aware of people around me, at first I I was very naïve but slowly grew to realize some of the people I sought validation and acceptance from were cruel, sometimes through indifference, negligence, or abusiveness. I cared very deeply about many things, and I used to believe this was something everyone felt. It was an incredibly painful experience to invest so much effort in order to begin to interact with others, only to find a reality drastically different than what I had when I was sheltered in my mind. Reading that story resonated with my sense of loss, alienation, and being ridiculed for things that were beyond my control. There were times I wished I could hide in my mind and regain my ability to tune everything out, and the story spoke to me very personally when I read it even though it wasn't until many uears later that I understood why.

stakkur 2 months ago

Around second grade, something odd happened to me: I discovered I had a photographic memory. For a while I was a trick pony who could read an entire book page once then recite it verbatim. I couldn't understand why other people couldn't do this.

Then, a year or so stopped. Not all at once; it became gradually harder and harder to do it, and one day I realized the ability was gone.

As all of this was happening, I happened to read Flowers for Algernon. It gripped me, and for many years I was afraid that the same thing was happening/would happen to me...I'd gradually become 'dumber and dumber' until I couldn't do anything. It scared the hell out of me.

As an adult in my 50s, I sometimes have random episodes of 'photographic' memory--I'll recall a page from book I read years ago, or an entire conversation from high school. I can't control it--it's entirely random. Seeing this book again brings back a mild echo of that anxiety I had about it. To this day, I just can't read it again.

  • anjel 2 months ago

    Eidetic memory is rare, somewhat controvercial but always found in children who grow out of the ability, much like how children lose the ability to learn a 2nd 3rd and 4th language without an foreign accent up until 12 years +/-.

eranation 2 months ago

Is this a short story that predated the full novel? Flowers for Algernon that I read was 300 pages or so... what am I missing?

  • _tom_ 2 months ago

    Yes. It was later expanded to a novel. And then a movie.

adroitboss 2 months ago

This book was on my reading list in 9th grade! I cried at the end. I felt for the main character all throughout the book.

at_a_remove 2 months ago

I recall a short story, back from the splatterpunk era, named "Mind/Matter." It starts off with a young man, brilliant in his own way, watching his mother die of Alzheimer's at a tremendously young age. Fast forward to him as an adult, and he is already suffering from the effects, but he is stewarded by an expert system he programmed that guides him by pager prompts and such. He is able to manage a career as a screenwriter by recycling old scripts and a bank of pre-written scripts, with occasional periods of lucidity. He lucks onto an experimental treatment in another country designed for his sort of problem and experiences a "Flowers for Algernon" effect, only highly accelerated, having literally minutes of first clarity, then super-human intellect ...

travelling_54 2 months ago

I guess Flowers for Algernon might be considered science fiction, but in any case it was set in the future (1965). The original short story was published in 1959. Maybe should change the title of this entry?

  • gramie 2 months ago

    I learned about the book after several famous SF authors said that it contained their favourite last line.

  • dekhn 2 months ago

    Speculative fiction.

bhouston 2 months ago

How does this compare to the experience of taking focus drugs for those that have problems focusing? Is the film “Limitless” a modern retelling of this in some aspects?

fweimer 2 months ago

What confused me a lot that I remember seeing this as a movie, but it was not the 1968 version or the 2000 TV remake. There is a French remake that's not referenced on the English-language Wikipedia page (Des fleurs pour Algernon, from 2013 or 2014, it's distinct from 2006 version).

It's kind weird when you remember something and the Internet appears to be telling you that it doesn't actually exist.

  • pwpw 2 months ago

    Often, if you go to the native language page of Wikipedia, there will be more "relevant" material. See if the page in French has that info. If you don't read French particularly well, you can use Google Translate on the page.

    I often do this to get a better understanding of local legends and stories that aren't big enough to make it to the article in English.

    But perhaps you know all that. To your point, it is weird! The internet is a vast collection of knowledge and information but things that don't get recalled or engaged with often enough get pushed down and eventually completely forgotten. It's sort of like the human recollection of memories.

virtualwhys 2 months ago

Odd, was just having lunch with a friend and asked if he'd ever read this book -- low and behold, here it is on HN.

This is the short story version, but I've read the book several times. It's not Tolstoy level literature, but I find myself drawn into this beautiful story of life, death, and compassion again and again.

dmitrygr 2 months ago

Absolutely my favorite story and my favorite reply to anyone who says that ignorance is bliss. It is only so if you have never tried the other alternative - knowing. After knowing, ignorance is not bliss. Knowing poisons happiness forever.

dingosity 2 months ago

Oh man. I remember reading this in elementary school. It reinforced my suspicion that adults were cruel monsters inhabiting human bodies.

beermonster 2 months ago

I read this after it coming to my attention via the hit TV show 'Person of Interest'. Really liked it (and the TV show).

ncmncm 2 months ago

Compare Wilmar Shiras, "in Hiding" (1948) and David Palmer, "Emergence" (1981).

radicalbyte 2 months ago

I read this book as part of me GCSE English in the UK. It's the only book they had which I enjoyed and, like many others, it had a big impact on me.

It's up there with being taught about the evils of modern history: Nazi's, Chile, Yemen, Slavery, Thatcher, Rand, Holodomor, Leopald II, various Chinese genocide, European genocides in both Americas..

That should be a part of the education of everyone living in free and democratic societies.

ms4720 2 months ago

That was one of the most tragic Greek tragedies I saw or read

binbag 2 months ago

What a great novel.

awinter-py 2 months ago

with perks of being a wallflower, belongs to a very strong subgenre of epistolary novels by narrators named charlie

dontbenebby 2 months ago

I tire of seeing this book stanned, and I'm gonna take a pause from working on this Beamer presentation to say why.

I wrote an essay about being twice exceptional a while back[0,1], and no one has ever made any substantial effort to make up for the wrongs from that period, instead treating a string of precarious, low paying, but "prestigous" roles as some kind of reward instead of a series of scams to enrich folks richer and whiter than I am.

I see the same circular discussions around it every time it comes up, and we need to break that cycle, ASAP.

I discovered Keyes around the time I used to get book recommendations from an anarchist I'd run into in the smoker's pit at a Catholic liberal arts college in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, because I was being handed a slew of medications rather than autonomy and respect for my dignity, so I'd smoke a bunch to offset the effects of medications I should have never been prescribed so I could study enough to pass my more quanitative classes, since I'd never taken things like geometry in a room free from being beaten bloody.

On my end, due to COVID and a general feeling of hopelessness, I used up the last of my social capital getting section 231[2] passed, in homage to the anarchist who told me student government and voting are useless when if we could just solve this issuer that for many folks, they become radicalized by the fact that no amount of learning will overcome algorithmic bias.

I worry when I see the same discussions repeated over and over that privileged folks do not understand how precarious their positions are, and how bad things can get if you do not learn from past mistakes and/or adjust to new opinion polling data if it's accurate but doesn't mesh with your views on what should be the foundations of geopolitics or whatever.

Back around the time of the G20, I knew lots of people who'd say don't do government, student or otherwise don't vote, none of it matters. Then they'd do things like be so stern about being antinuclear, the only "progressive" candidate is really just a pro-fracking, pro-policing populist riding the coattails of those who rose to prominence after Woodstock or whatever with "libertarian" policies that often seem structured to ensure some set of folks is forever precarious and thus, forever beholden to some weird weed with ties to the Boys from Brazil or whatever[3,4], as supposedly smart supposedly privileged autists like myself sit waiting to be "discovered" like one of Jean Luc Brunel's models[9].

I cannot emphasize enough how utterly infuriating it is to sit with latex open in one window, a script you wrote in the second, and a set of pdfs in the other that the intersection of few people on the planet could parse in the 3rd through Nth, and an inbox full of suggestions on things like which minimum wage location might be willing to pay a fair wage for a dishwasher while you learn to control your anxiety through some crack PsyD when the core issue you have is the same you've had since the last recession -- lack of reoccuring income paired with the perpetual trauma of always being the wrong type of special to be given stability and freedom.

As always, I'm happy to send a CV and code samples to anyone sincerely looking to interview candidates, but I make posts like this because a string of people interviewed me in good faith, and either ignored the advice and got angry when I pointed out their systems suffered breaches[5,6], disasters[7], or (wo)man made catastrophes[8] after they ignored what I said after they asked for my thoughts... or took it, ran with it, and enriched themselves without ever actually hiring me, but I won't cite them -- I'll settle for backing their opponents in private until I can remind them I told them about Metcalfe's law[9] years ago.

(The era of treating interviews like free consulting sessions is over, I'll sell every stock in my IRA and move to a bunker in Bologna before I let this pattern continue another year -- but thanks for the PDF and the discussion space, let's see if folks seize this opportunity to engage in lateral thinking rather than reply like robots. ;-) )












  • stonogo 2 months ago

    Sorry, the thesis here is that you don't like this book because someone didn't hire you?

    • dontbenebby 2 months ago

      The thesis is I no longer enjoy the things I used to, because I don't think learning new skills and abilities is useful, and the art I used to enjoy now reminds me of the time I wasted due to lies my teachers told me about shitty first drafts[1] or other creative nonfictions.

      (I can't tell if you're making an extremely local reference, or just a lucky troll, but either way, salud. You... "tricked" me. You win the prize.)


swayvil 2 months ago

Vipassana meditation makes you smarter. There seems to be no ceiling. But it's also weird. For what that's worth.

I wonder if Mr Keyes meditated.