Not surprisingly, my daughters are all voracious readers—the eldest in particular. Reading is usually a solitary activity, but she still likes me to read to her, just like I used to before she learned to read for herself. Recently, I read The Wizard of Oz to her, which was intriguing, because I had never read it before. I had of course seen the movie several times, but never read the book. It’s different. Not better, not worse, just different. It reads far more like a standard fairy tale, where things happen for no apparent reason, and the only goal is to keep a child’s mind entertained for a while. The movie adheres more to the conventions of cinema, with an overriding narrative arc that trims away any episodes that do not directly advance the plot. There’s also no singing in the book!
More recently, I picked up Flowers for Algernon. I intended to read it to my daughter, but quickly realized she’d have to read it for herself to fully appreciate Charlie’s progression. The story is told in the first-person, from Charlie’s perspective, so the language (and grammar and spelling) are crude in the beginning, but quickly advance to an elevated diction and complicated style, and this has to be experienced first-hand. I tried to read along, as it were, staying slightly ahead of her, but I soon find myself catching up. She finished the book before I did (well, she’s got more time to read than I do). To be honest, I couldn’t remember whether I’d ever read the book, and after I started, it was apparent that I never did (in fact, if I’d been more familiar with the book, I might’ve held off, as some of the content is not really suited for a 10-year-old). I think I saw the movie as a kid, but now, I’m not even sure of that. I remember a specific scene—which, it turns out, is not even in the book—and now I don’t recall whether I saw the whole movie or just saw the ad a few times before it aired on TV, back in the days of the 4:00 afternoon special. But wow! I have to say, it is a brilliant book, and really quite devastating for anyone who values the life of the mind. It derides scholarly elitism, and the deification of knowledge as the greatest human good. And yet, it ultimately cannot propose any worthwhile alternative—certainly not the anti-intellectualism of the bakery crew, or even the bohemian iconoclasm of the free-spirited (but essentially empty) artist. Indeed, Charlie’s ultimate epiphany comes not through intellectual mastery, but through physical and emotional connection to another person in the face of inexorable entropy, the universal forces of space and time working to pull us and everything else apart.
Charlie is disgruntled to think that the lead researcher did not consider him to be human or alive before the surgery that ended his retarded state; but in a sense, the surgery was a birth, and the subsequent growth and decay of his mental faculties mirror the same arc that everyone must endure. He understands that his mind will deteriorate, much the way we all understand that we will die, and nothing we do can change that. There’s an element of Greek tragedy here, and part of the tragedy comes from sharing his realization that time is limited and life unfair. Who hasn’t felt the drive (especially upon reaching a certain age) to squeeze every drop from every minute, not knowing how many we have left? But even that invites conflict—between the desire to do something meaningful and enduring, and the desire to spend as much time as possible with those who will miss us most when we’re gone. And is any of it even worth it, after all? Is Charlie any better off in the end, or is he perhaps even worse, given his intimations of paradise lost? (Significantly, Charlie picks up Milton’s poem as his mind deteriorates, but can’t make heads or tails of it.) We all know where all of this is heading, and yet somehow, we go on.
Even now, I can’t read the final diary entry without crying, particularly this:
If you ever reed this Miss Kinnian dont be sorry for me. Im glad I got a second chanse in life like you said to be smart because I lerned alot of things that I never even new were in this werld and Im grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit.
This is what it comes down to. On the one hand, it’s easy to believe, as Silenus told Midas, that it is better not have been born at all. On the other hand, I feel, like Charlie, grateful to have seen it all, even for a little bit.