THE MAN WHO FORGOT HOW TO READ: A MEMOIR, by Howard Engel, Thomas Dunne Books, 157 pages, $19.95
Howard Engel, a Canadian, is the well-known author of the Benny Cooperman detective series, comprising 12 novels, several short stories, radio broadcasts and two films.
One summer morning in 2001, Engel, then 70 years old, picked up his newspaper from his front step and found that he could make no sense of it. The letters were mysteriously jumbled and looked foreign to him, perhaps Cyrillic or Korean.
Was he the victim of a cruel practical joke? Remarkably, instead of reacting in panic, Engel found himself overcome with calm and reason. He would figure it out. To his surprise, he found that chairs looked the same as did his bed. Outside, the trees, a squirrel and a cat all looked normal.
Next, he noticed that his memory failed him in various ways and that geography eluded him. He could tell no difference between apples and grapefruit. He had trouble remembering where things went in the house, from the dishwasher to the freezer.
He found he could still tell time. On the way to the hospital, though he was deeply confused by the streets and landmarks, all of which seemed surreal. When he saw some people he knew he couldn't remember them. When asked for personal information, his young son, Jacob, supplied it.
Actually, Engel had suffered a stroke in the night and was suffering from a rare condition called alexia sine agraphia, sometimes called "word blindness," meaning that while he could still write, he could no longer read. It was devastating to a man whose life had been devoted to the written page.
During eight weeks of hospital rehabilitation, he found some relief in keeping a "memory book" filled with his own jottings of people and things he had forgotten but someone had brought to his attention. The book helped him focus and start to rebuild his memory.
Engel finally contacted Oliver Sacs, the renowned neurologist, but only after he had already started writing another Benny Cooperman novel. Then he went to New York City to seek his help. He and Sacs formed a lasting bond, and through intensive, hard work, Engel recovered his ability to read and even write.
Sacs wrote a short chapter at the end of this book about Engel's situation. He quoted Engel writing to him, "I can make myself see that certain letter groupings are indeed familiar words, but that comes only after I have stared at the page."
Sacs attributed Engel's amazing comeback to his personality that of "a resourceful, verbal, highly motivated person." He congratulated Engel for "heroic determination" and humor and warned that he still faces new challenges as he relates visually to books, maps, street signs, printed labels, written directions of all kinds all such integral parts of our environment.This book is inspiring as this stricken person shows how he largely taught himself how to effectively access once more his highly resilient brain.