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Daniel Keyes

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Note: This post was originally written in Swedish, so if you prefer to read the original text, you can take  a look here. This is a translation I made because I realised I quite liked the post and wanted to have it on my personal website as well.

Some people read books in order to relax for a while, to lose themselves in another word or to experience suspense their ordinary lives rarely offers. I don’t. Instead, I read mostly to find new, creative and stimulating ideas and concepts, which is why I have derived so much pleasure from reading science fiction in the past. Occasionally, I come across books that contain something I have never ever experienced before, which is what I want to discuss in this post about unique reading experiences.

In the above introduction, “unique” means that no reading, before or after, can be sorted into the same category. Thus, it isn’t a question of varying degrees of a given quality (“This author’s language is ten times as good as any other I’ve read!”), but rather a question of a fundamentally different experience (“This author uses a language that affects me in a completely different way than any other I’ve read!”). The reason why I say “experience” and not “book” is that sometimes an author is unique in a special way, but that his or her books are quite similar. For instance, it would be sad to disqualify Thomas Pynchon from the list below simply because one of his other books is similar to Gravity’s Rainbow.

In creating this list, I went through all the books I’ve read the last ten years or so, and I only came up with three experiences I consider completely unique.

Daniel KeyesFlowers For Algernon is the only book I’ve read that has moved me emotionally as an adult (I cried when finishing the last chapter and had to take a really long walk afterwards). I’m usually too distanced from books to really feel with the characters, but in this book I did so wholeheartedly. It might be because the themes and questions raised in this novel lie very close to my heart and have done so for at least ten years (for those of you not familiar with the book, the main theme is that of ignorance is bliss or Plato’s allegory of the cave).

Thomas Pynchon‘s Gravity’s Rainbow I can’t really find a suitable way to use “is the only book I’ve read that” with, but it’s still unique in so many ways that it merits a place on the list. The feeling of following the authors wildly bizarre language and hopelessly confusing narrative is wholly unique and no other author I’ve read (not even other post modernists) comes close.

Mark LynasSix Degrees is not only the best non-fiction book I’ve read, it’s also the only book that has radically changed my way of viewing the world in which we live in. Sure, I was intellectually aware of the fact that the Earth’s climate was not in good shape, but this book highlighted the issue to such an extent that it has stays with me every day. No other book has ever accomplished such a thing.

In concluding this article, I’d like to ask you what unique reading experience you have to share with us? What made the experience unique? Do you think you are alone in thinking the experience unique, or is the book unique in a more objective way? Remember that unique isn’t the same thing as good; if you can put “This book is the only one that…” at the beginning of the sentence, you’re on the right track!

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Title: Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes
Year: 1966
Reviewed: 2007-04-25

I have chosen this book to be the one used for task #44 on my 101-in-1001 list. It took me a long while to find the perfect book, but I am confident that Flowers for Algernon is as close to ideal as I am likely to come.

Let me begin this review by saying that mere words are insufficient to covey what I think about this novel. This might sound like a cliché, but even if language is limited for communicating certain notions, I seldom find it difficult to formulate my opinions about books I read. The reason for this novel not being like other novels is that it has a far greater emotional impact than anything I have ever read (this is not an exaggeration, but a carefully considered statement). Books are often interesting intellectually, or appeal to my imagination and inspire me in various ways, but I can honestly say that this is the first book to really move me emotionally.

Throughout this fairly short novel, we follow the mentally challenged Charlie with an IQ of 68. He lives a secluded life, sweeping floors in a bakery and enjoying his life. However, within him stirs an ambition to become something, to elevate himself into the world of normal citizens. Although he is not competent to understand what he is doing, he volunteers to become the first human subject of a psychological experiment. Having reached stable results with the mouse Algernon, scientists proceed to test on Charlie. The goal: To triple his IQ and give him super-human mental faculties.

Our window into the ever-changing world of Charlie is his progress reports. From the moment he is picked as a possible subject of the intelligence acceleration, he writes about himself, his feelings and his experiences. At first, his writing is childish and rife with grammatical errors, inconsistencies and spelling mistakes. His thoughts are what we might call shallow and he is incapable of grasping the long-term effects of events. Here are a few lines when they test his performance finding his way through a maze printed on a sheet of paper, getting beaten every time by the mouse:

“And the other ten times we did it over Algernon won evry time because I coudnt find the right to get to where it says FINISH. I dint feel bad because I watched Algernon and I lernd how to finish the amaze even if it takes me along time. I dint know mice were so smart.” (6)

Gradually, like the man from Plato’s cave, he ascends into the light and his progress reports improve rapidly, showing both an increased awareness of language and an increased ability to understand himself and his relation to society. However, if we are to trust Charlie’s account, there is much in the saying that ignorance is bliss. He learns of many things which hurt him badly and he is removed from his small personal world. Entering the complex system which is the society of today, he has to cope with social problems that he hitherto has been oblivious to. As the experiments proceeds, he leaves other humans far behind and yet again becomes as lonely as he was before the experiment, with the significant difference that he now is intelligent enough to understand.

Then Algernon begins to behave strangely, his intelligence deteriorating. Like a madman, he throws himself against the walls of his maze, in anticipation and in frustration of what may come. The turning-point of the novel is when Charlie realises that his ascendancy might be only transient…

There are three aspects of this novel which make it a true masterpiece. Firstly, the way in which it is written is truly marvellous. Through all the reports, the reader is offered the opportunity to identify with Charlie, to join him on his journey. They are written in a style which makes me feel closer to him than to any other fictional character I can think of. Also, the way in which the author manages to illustrate the development of the experiment simply through modulating the way in which the progress reports are written, is simply awe-inspiring.

Secondly, the intellectual themes of the novel are highly interesting. The novel deals mainly with the problem of Plato’s cave, of man realising that there is a higher form of existence and then returning to his former world of shadows. The novel also instils humility, preaching that intelligence is not something that is without drawbacks. Ignorance may indeed be bliss and although scientists might be viewed as the gods of modern society, we should think twice before worshipping them as such.

Thirdly, and as I have already mentioned, this novel moves me in a way no other work of fiction has ever done. The story, especially the beginning and the end, is suffused with sadness and tragedy. Believe me when I say that I have thought this over, but I cannot really tell you why it touches me so. In the final few paragraphs of the novel, though, there was something I have never encountered before, which kept me wiping my eyes in order to go on reading. Afterwards, I had to go for a really long midnight walk.

Conclusively, this is a book I recommend to everyone. Since I finished it fairly recently, I cannot yet determine how will it will stand the test of time, but I am confident that it will come out triumphant as the best (yes, the best, not one of the best) book I have ever read. I am sure it will be with me for a long time and I look forward to rereading it whenever I feel too conceited because of my academic and intellectual achievements.

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Titel: The Hugo Winners – Volume 1
Redaktör: Isaac Asimov
Utgivningsår: 1971 (1971)
Recenserad: 2005-10-10
Status: I bokhyllan

Den här recensionen blir kort och jag vill mest lyfta fram de noveller jag tycker är läsvärda. Dessa är Exploration Team (Murray Leinster), The Star (Arhur C. Clarke), Or All the Seas with Oysters (Avram Davidson), Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes). De är minnesvärda av olika anledningar. Den första är en enastående berättelse om en fientlig planet, den andra är bland de bästa noveller jag vet, i alla fall om man delar braheten med antalet sidor, den tredje är finurligt kuslig, den fjärde rörande och tankeväckande på samma gång. Jag borde läsa fler noveller.

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