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The Man Who Forgot How to Read: A Memoir

The Man Who Forgot How to Read: A Memoir

5.0 1
by Howard Engel, Oliver Sacks (Afterword)

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The remarkable journey of an award-winning writer struck with a rare and devastating affliction that prevented him from reading even his own writing

One hot midsummer morning, novelist Howard Engel picked up his newspaper from his front step and discovered he could no longer read it. The letters had mysteriously jumbled themselves into something that


The remarkable journey of an award-winning writer struck with a rare and devastating affliction that prevented him from reading even his own writing

One hot midsummer morning, novelist Howard Engel picked up his newspaper from his front step and discovered he could no longer read it. The letters had mysteriously jumbled themselves into something that looked like Cyrillic one moment and Korean the next. While he slept, Engel had experienced a stroke and now suffered from a rare condition called alexia sine agraphia, meaning that while he could still write, he could no longer read.

Over the next several weeks in hospital and in rehabilitation, Engel discovered that much more was affected than his ability to read. His memory failed him, and even the names of old friends escaped his tongue. At first geography eluded him: he would know that two streets met somewhere in the city, but he couldn’t imagine where. Apples and grapefruit now looked the same. When he returned home, he had trouble remembering where things went and would routinely find cans of tuna in the dishwasher and jars of pencils in the freezer.

Despite his disabilities, Engel prepared to face his dilemma. He contacted renowned neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks for advice and visited him in New York City, forging a lasting friendship. He bravely learned to read again. And in the face of tremendous obstacles, he triumphed in writing a new novel.

An absorbing and uplifting story, filled with sly wit and candid insights, The Man Who Forgot How to Read will appeal to anyone fascinated by the mysteries of the mind, on and off the page.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Howard Engel brings to his memoir, The Man Who Forgot How to Read, all the skills he has learned as a crime writer working on the Benny Cooperman books. It is witty, insightful, moving without being sentimental, and it keeps you turning the pages. I urge you to read it.” —-Peter Robinson

“In The Man Who Forgot How to Read, Engel tells his story from the inside, with extraordinary insight, humor, and intelligence. It is a story that is not only as fascinating as one of his own detective novels, but a testament to the resilience and creative adaptation of one man and his brain.” —-Oliver Sacks

Publishers Weekly
In Engel's memoir, he relates the difficult journey from bookworm word-jockey to near-illiterate and back again; a successful mystery novelist in his native Canada, Engel awoke one morning to discover he'd lost the ability to read. Soon, he's informed that he suffered a stroke while asleep, and is afflicted with alexia sine agraphia, a condition in which he can still write, but can't read-even what he himself has written. While battling alexia in rehab, Engel juggles a young son and a girlfriend, and tries to figure out how to support himself and his family. After accepting that he will never again write adventures for his long-time lead, detective Benny Cooperman, he eventually finds himself forging a therapeutic novel in which Benny suffers from a brain injury similar to Engel's own. This intriguing account of personal tragedy, overcome with grace and humility, is an inspirational and instructive tale.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Straightforward account of how the author of the Benny Cooperman mystery series coped with a life-altering stroke. Engel discovered one morning in 2001 that his daily newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail, appeared to have been written in Cyrillic or Korean. Recovering from his stroke at Mount Sinai Hospital, he was diagnosed with alexia sine agraphia, which meant that though he could still write, he could not read what he had written. This was a severe blow: Engel was, he writes, "a one-trick pony, and reading was my trick." A brief account of his childhood and early years illustrates his addiction to reading and his introduction to writing. The memoir focuses, however, on his post-stroke life. For three months in a rehab center he worked with a specialist who helped him master the exhausting process of learning to decipher words letter by letter. Strategies that helped included writing letters in the air with his finger or tracing them on the roof of his mouth with his tongue. He began a "memory book" to help keep track of details that his scrambled brain could no longer retain; pages from this and from a journal he also kept are reproduced here. On his return home, Engel got reacquainted with his computer-the various screens looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn't read the instructions-and began a new Cooperman mystery (Memory Book, 2006). He drew on his rehab experience to depict his private eye waking up in a hospital with alexia sine agraphia; friends helped by reading his written words back to him aloud. When the novel was finished, neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote an appreciative afterword for it, as he has for the present work. Insider's view of brain damage clarifies theexperience with honesty and humor.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt


The Man Who Forgot How to Read

MY NAME IS HOWARD ENGEL. I write detective stories. That’s what I tell people when they ask me what I do. I could say I’m a writer or a novelist, but that raises a false echo in my brain, so I’m happier with the more modest claim of writing detective stories. I’ve written quite a few of them.

Before I started writing I was a reader. I read widely, everything from the John, Mary and Peter primer of my early childhood to Corn Flakes boxes when there was nothing more inspiring handy. I’ve been a reading junkie since public school. I played little baseball because I was searching with Lancelot for the Holy Grail and helping to free the widow’s sons from the Sheriff of Nottingham’s henchmen. I came home from summer camp without a tan because of books and comic books. I was reading about astronomy before I knew where the nearest drug store was located. My universe began at Betelgeuse, not at Binder’s Drug Store. When I came home from university, my family didn’t know how to talk to me; I was so full of books, I was no longer able to understand a request to pass the salt without a philosophical discussion on the nature of joint ownership of property or state capitalism. When I lived in Europe, and I became frustrated with my lack of fluency in French, Greek or Italian, I sought out the local English bookstore.

I was in fact a very busy fellow, writing about my home town, St. Catharines, Ontario, and turning it into the murder capital of the world. Benny Cooperman, my personal private investigator, has been successful in more than a dozen novels, several short stories, radio broadcasts and two films. His name has turned up in crossword puzzles in the Los Angeles Times. He is doing well. Or, at least, he was doing well when I, the author of his being, was stricken with a sudden stroke in 2001, which put us out of the writing business by robbing me of the thing I loved above all things: the ability to read.

This book is about the road back. About how I coped, the people who helped me along the way and how I found my road back into the mysteries of what reading and writing are all about. It’s a success story, in a way, because at the end of this story I am writing again. Not only that, but I have had another Benny Cooperman book published. It is a story with palpable commercial possibilities, but that is not the reason I wrote it. For me it is much more important to look back and remember all the steps that got me where I am. I need to know that so I won’t forget that there was a struggle along the way and that there was a small army of people who helped me climb all those steps.

THE MAN WHO FORGOT HOW TO READ. Copyright © 2007 by Howard Engel. Afterword © 2007 by Oliver Sacks. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Meet the Author

Howard Engel is the creator of the enduring and beloved detective Benny Cooperman, who, through his appearance in twelve novels, has become an internationally recognized fictional sleuth. He is the winner of numerous awards, including an Arthur Ellis Award for Crime Fiction. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

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