Monday, September 10, 2007

The Man Who Forgot How To Read Howard Engel

Publisher: Harper Collins Canada (Aug 9 2007)

Format: Hardcover; pages: 157

Price: $29.95

Genre: Memoir/Non-Fiction

Afterword by Oliver Sacks

Click HERE to view how print looked to Howard Engel's eyes

I was at the book store browsing the other evening, when a book with this title "Man Who Forgot How to Read" caught my eye. It got my attention because when my father had a stroke and lost his ability to read we would jokingly tell people that he had declared a moratorium on reading (he was embarrassed to admit he could no longer read). So naturally I was curious to know what the book was about.

From the jacket sleeve:

One hot mid-summer morning in Toronto, bestselling crime novelist Howard Engel got up to fetch his morning paper 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. “Was this a Serbo-Croatian version of The Globe?” he wondered.

I stood riveted to the spot because this was similar to how my father discovered he had lost the ability to decipher print. I knew then I just had to get the book and I am so glad I did!

After Howard Engel (
author of 12 best-selling mystery novels featuring his beloved detective, Benny Cooperman) realized that he couldn't make out the printed word that summer morning in 2001, he took himself off to the Emergency Room of his local hospital where the doctors diagnosed his condition as "alexia sine agraphia" (which came about owing to a stroke that he had suffered). A person with alexia can write without difficulty but will no longer be able to read what he writes. This was almost impossible for Engels to accept, after all, he had always been a reader, his brain was hard-wired to read "...I could no more stop reading than I could stop my heart. Reading was bone and marrow, lymph and blood to me", besides, he made his living writing, if he couldn't read what he wrote, how would he make his living?

There were other symptoms too, a lack of clarity for instance. He couldn't tell what day of the week or month it was; familiar objects like apples and oranges suddenly started to look strange and unfamiliar, "...My confusions were ingenious: they ranged from not recognizing the names of familiar streets or the well-known titles of books by certain authors to not knowing whether I lived on College Street with my first wife or my second"

Yet through all of that, Engel didn't allow himself to panic. Once he was admitted to Rehab, with help from his therapists he slowly learned to decipher the street names in his neighborhood, the grocery aisles and headlines of his beloved newspapers. Anyone who has ever suffered from this condition and who has had to learn to read again will tell you that it's a very frustrating, very laborious exercise, yet, Engel stuck with it and with grit and determination taught himself how to read again.

The reason for Engel's success, I believe, is that he didn't allow himself any self pity. He accepted the condition, learned all he could about it and then went all out to overcome it.

There are several reasons to be grateful for Engel's memoir:

It is inspiring, informative, insightful and will encourage you to take a similar attitude when faced with an uphill battle.
Oliver Sacks, (eminent neurologist and author of some fascinating books, "The Island of the ColorBlind","Awakenings", etc.) who wrote the afterword, says of Howard Engel, "this is not only a story as fascinating as one of his own detective novels but a testament to the resilience and creative adaptation of one man and his brain.” Also, when articulate people like Engel put their experiences down on paper it helps scientists decode the mystery of the literate brain, thereby doing all of us a great service.

For me, personally, I enjoyed the memoir because Engel's wonderful descriptions of what he felt and saw through it all, helped me realize what my own father went through. Sadly, when my father had his stroke, along with developing alexia, he also lost his speech and was never able to explain to us the confusion he was feeling or seeing.

Finally, Engel's memoir is a great testament to the success of the Canadian health services. The pages where Engel describes all the therapy and rehabilitation the therapists put him through make you believe we have a system that works and we have good reason to be proud of it.

Today Engel can read but with extreme difficulty. Where he used to whiz through six books a week, it now takes him a month or more to finish one. But he reads and that is the most important thing, isn't it?

Other conditions that can occur when the wiring of the brain goes awry: (courtesy Kurt Kleiner of the Globe and Mail)

  • Agraphia : The mirror image of Alexia, this condition results in the inability to write while leaving reading fluency intact.
  • Associative Aphasia : People with this condition speak fluently and understand what is being said to them, but can repeat back a sentence without making errors such as mixing up sounds or substituting incorrect words.
  • Visual Agnosia: As described in Oliver Sack's "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat", people with this condition can see and describe an object in detail, but are unable to recognize what it is.
  • Korsakoff's Syndrome : This syndrome affects the capacity to form new memories. Although intelligence and old memories are unaffected, the sufferer is unable to lay down new memories - remembering things that happened 20 years ago, but not 20 mins ago.
  • Prosopagnosia: This condition leaves people unable to recognize faces, even those of family members and long-time friends. It is usually caused by damage to a brain area called the fusiform gyrus.
  • Capgras Delusion : People with this syndrome recognize the face of loved ones, but are convinced they have been replaced by imposters. reports suggest that actor and comic Tony Rosato - charged with criminally harassing his wife - may suffer from this condition,
**UPDATE** This post was named "Post of the Day" by David McMahon of Authorblog, thank you David, I am so happy this post touched so many people!


Radha said...

My dad had a brain stroke around 5 yrs ago & the exact same thing happened to him (the speech center in his brain was affected due to which he couldnt read, speak or comprehend words...even after speech therapy). So like you I can understand the frustration a man faces when he has so much to say but doesnt find the words to. Its terrible to watch; so I cant begin to imagine how it would be to be in those shoes!

Lotus Reads said...

@Radha ~ Thanks for sharing this. How is your dad now? Speech therapy didn't help my dad very much either. I am going to be giving my mom and sister a copy of this book because they were with dad all through his should try and get your hands on a copy too.

Sanjay said...

Lotus, I am blown away by this post.

I love how well you put your thoughts down and explained the condition of "alexia sine agraphia". You also drew out the essence of the book in a very lucid manner. I think you captured the heart and soul of the book, Engel's struggles and his triumph (yes it is a triumph, because he went from not being able to read at all to being able to read again) over his disability.

I clicked on the link to see what Engel must have seen and I can only begin to imagine how scary that moment could have been for him.

I can see why this book let you see what your father went thru, and my heart goes out to him and to you.

It must have been really hard for him but I truly admire his spirit for being able to add a touch of humor to this situation which is a testament to his courage.

Are you planning to record your thoughts about this book and how it helped you understand what he went through for him in an audio file?

And thank you also for telling me about the other conditions, I have not heard about a lot of them.

The neurosciences is where a lot of great cutting edge research is happening, it is what scientists like to call a "hot" field of work.

And you have every reason to be proud of the health care system that Canada has. I wish we had something similar, we eventually will but it is years away.

As always a great read, thank you I always learn something new here.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

Thank you for always saying the nicest things. I'm so glad I discovered this book, I think it's a must read for anyone who has helped a loved one through a stroke.

Yes, Engel triumphed over his disability armed only with a good sense of humor, courage and determination, three qualities he had in spades.

I'm glad you clicked on the link to read what Engel saw. I, too, was quite taken aback but now I understand what my father sees everytime he tries to read. I think it's a great idea to make an audio file of the review for him, thanks Sanjay! I also hope to buy him the audio book when it comes out.

I love the neurosciences, it was one of my favorite subjects in college and that is why I love Oliver Sacks so much...he's coming out with a new book on the healing power of music. Should be good!

Once again, thank you for the comment, it's always nice to hear from you!

poodlerat said...

Oh, wow, I have to read this. When I read the title of your post, I felt a genuine thrill of horror. I wouldn't be surprised if the inability to read shows up in a nightmare someday...

So, two things I should be grateful for and not take for granted: my ability to read and our excellent health care system.

Sanjay said...

Lotus. Thank you for your response and for telling me about the new book by Oliver Sacks. There was a writeup on him in the NYTimes recently, he is moving to Columbia University after spending many years at the Albert Einstein College. He is that university's first "Columbia artist".

Great idea to give your dad an audio version of this book. I hope he is doing well and I wish him the best.

Nymeth said...

This sounds like such a fascinating book. I remember learning about those different brain conditions in college and being seriously frightening. It's scary to know that if a little something goes wrong we can lose such important abilities. I think Korsakoff's Syndrome is the scariest of all.

This book sounds really inspiring, and comforting in a way - even though something terrible happened to Engel, he did his best to fight it and he managed to get better.

My best wishes to your father.

Hollydolly said...

This post is mind blowing, I will never take reading for granted again. It is unimaginable how a person would feel to have this happen.

You have such a beautiful and gracious way with words that make this article all the more poignant.

What a great idea to give your family a copy of this book. I do wish your Dad the best, I will say a prayer for him.

Love and hugs.....Sylvia

hellomelissa said...

i really had no idea about this condition. thanks to you lotus, and to howard engel for enlightening us.

Lotus Reads said...

@poodlerat ~ It's true, it is stuff that nightmares are made of! And what an excellent point you make, reading this makes one so grateful for the fact that we can read!!!

@Sanjay ~ Thank you for the update on Oliver Sacks...btw, have you seen the movie "Awakenings" with Robin Williams? I haven't, but I'm going to put it on my queue.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Nymeth!

Mental disabilities can be so hard on the patient and his/her caretakers. Korsakoff's Syndrome is scary indeed and I think it is found more in very heavy drinkers. This book was quite an eye-opener, makes me really value my own health especially my mental faculties.

@Sylvia ~ You put it so well...I, too, will never take my ability to read for granted again because, as we have seen, it can be taken from us in the blink of an eye. THank you for the sweet compliment and for your prayers for my dad. He's doing a lot better now actually, but his speech is still difficult to understand and his struggle to read is better, but not over.

@Melissa ~ You're quite welcome! If you want to know about other bizarre conditions you have to read Oliver Sacks!

jenclair said...

Being unable to read would be a frightening thing for anyone, but especially someone who has been a writer.

I will look for this book, Lotus; you've touched on a subject that is of both frightening and fascinating significance.

Asha said...

Wish your dad had CD books available to him,they are great. I need to barrow some too,takes time for my eyes to focus on nearer things.
Thanks for listing those disabilities,I didn't know most of them! It would scare me to death if I can never read.I went crazy with boredom first 5 days after LASIK!!

ML said...

I had never heard of this until now. How fascinating! How personal for you, Lotus, because your father suffered the same fate.

Thanks for the review and bringing this subject to my attention.

starry nights said...

I can only imagine how he felt when he could not read. I have heard about people having this problem after a stroke but did not know the details.Thank you for explaining it .I love to read and cannot imagine what i would do if I could not. I think this book teaches us not to give up but to persevere.

Lotus Reads said...

@Jenclair ~ True, and that was Engel's biggest would he earn if he couldn't read what he writes? I would have been scared out of my wits! I cannot imagine a life without reading or writing.

@Asha ~ So glad you're recovering well. I keep sending my dad audio books whenever I can, he really,really loves them. I am so thankful for podcasts too!

@ml ~ Yes, Engel's story really spoke to me...I am so glad he wrote a book about his experiences. We can learn so much by reading what other people have gone through and how they coped.

@Starry ~ You're dead right...Engel could have so easily given up, after all, learning to read again is such a frustrating experience, but he persevered. A wonderful lesson for all of us to learn.

Tara said...

What a fascinating sounding book, and important one for you as well. All of these syndromes sound so maddening!

Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

First I wanted to tell you how much I like the look of your blog. Second This book sounds wonderful and I may have to pick this one up!

Lotus Reads said...

@Tara ~ I so agree...this is an important book, one that can teach us so much. Thank you for visiting.

Lotus Reads said...

@Heather ~ Hi! Your comment snuck in as I was responding to Tara :) Thank you and thank you, I love that you like the blog and yes, this book is certainly worth a read. Thank you so much for the visit.

Ted said...

great post. Oddly enough, I write on Capgras and prosopagnosia myself today! I think alexia w/o agraphia is mind boggling and one of the obvious demonstrations of the segregation of processes and areas in our amazing brains!

gs said...

hello lotus
when i read your review i was immediately reminded of my father who had passed away 13 years ago at age 84.his brain was his greatest asset. he suffered acute infarction of the brain followed by cerbral hemorrahge and then he fell down and broke his femur bone.he recovered though he didn't live long after that.he would turn the newspaper upside down when i would give it to him to read.and he said"there is no brain now".howard engel's is a great comeback story and i would love to read it.thanks for sharing your dad's struggle with reading with all of us.

A Reader from India said...

When I read the title of the post, for one moment I thought it was a work of fiction like Umberto Eco's 'The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana' in which the protagonist forgets everything about his past life after a stroke. The only thing he remembers is all the books he had ever read.

I was shocked when I saw that it was a memoir. What a sad condition, for a writer to forget to read. And how inspiring that he fought the condition and is now reading again - A real life happy ending!

Thanks, Lotus - Each time I visit your blog, I add one more wonderful book to my 'To Be Read' list that is forever growing.

Wishing your Dad a speedy recovery.

Happy Reader said...

Touching post! It was really sad to hear what your dad went thru and my heart goes out to him. I guess nothing more could come shocking to a writer than his inability to read! Also, Thanks for sharing other brain syndromes.I have never heard of any of them. Such a wonderful review, Lotus! I should look out for this book.

Booklogged said...

What a bittersweet experience for you to read this book. Like you mention, though, it was good to realize some of the things your father must have felt.

I adding this one to my TBR list. Thanks, Lotus.

Lotus Reads said...

@Ted ~ What an odd coincidence :) I must head over to your blog to read the post. I find the neurosciences absolutely fascinating and reading this book has made me want to take my "NYTimes Book of the Brain" off the shelf and leaf through it.

@gs ~ Thank you for sharing your dad's story. You're right, so many people want to give up after an illness affects their ability to live life as they always knew it. As a volunteer in our local hospital I see a lot of patients with Alzheimers ( I know you work with them too). They have their good days and bad and on their good days it's so sad to see them lament their loss of memory and how debilitated the disease has rendered them.

Lotus Reads said...

@A Reader ~ When I read the title of the post, for one moment I thought it was a work of fiction like Umberto Eco's 'The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana' in which the protagonist forgets everything about his past life after a stroke. The only thing he remembers is all the books he had ever read.

What a premise! I must get my hands on this book, Reader! I think nothing is as cruel as losing your sight or your memory. Interesting that Umberto Eco's protagonist forgets his past (there must be scientific term for that, one that I can't recall) and patients suffering from Alzheimers recall their pasts usually in vivid detail and have little or no short term memory. Infact, psychologists are currently very concerned about holocaust survivors suffering from Alzheimers. Seems like their pasts have cruelly come to revisit. Awful, isn't it?

@Chitts ~ You're so welcome! Reminds me a little of Beethoven who lost his hearing and yet went on to write some of his most beautiful compositions after he turned deaf!

@booklogged ~ It was bittersweet indeed and quite a revelation. I am so glad I read this book.

Jyothsna said...

Thats scary and insightful as well! I'd panic if I couldn't read! Thank God for the audio cds!

Beenzzz said...

Hi Lotus,
Thank you so much for sharing this with us. It must have been very difficult for you and your family when your father suffered his stroke. I am glad that Engel's book was able to help you see through the eyes of a person with alexia and give you the understanding of what your father couldn't communicate with you. I had no idea what alexia was until I read your post. Strokes are so common and yet, I am still so very uneducated about it. Thank you again!

Gentle Reader said...

This sounds like such an interesting book. I knew that strokes could cause such symptoms, but never really thought about what it would be like to suddenly lose the ability to read--very frightening! I love Oliver Sacks's work, I think I would like this, too. Thanks for the review!

gs said...

hello lr
many thanks again for the wonderful wife runs an alzheimer's day care center at mumbai and a 'nightingale' round the clock service at neral.i have seen some of the patients absolutely fine one day and then in severe depression another day as you rightly said.the book is a must read.and thanks for sharing your personal experiences.

Lotus Reads said...

@Jyothsna ~ Now if only they (audio cd's) weren't so expensive!

@beenzzz ~ Strokes are so common and yet, I am still so very uneducated about it. You're not the only one beenzzz, even though my dad has had more than one I am still unfamiliar with the wide ranage of disabilities it can cause. Thank you for your comment!

@Gentle Reader ~ You're quite welcome. It is an arresting title and caught my attention right away at the bookstore. I'm glad I read it. I love Oliver Sacks too!

@gs ~ How wonderful of your wife to run this clinic. People with senile dementia are among the most difficult patients to handle. Hat's off to her for doing this!

heather (errantdreams) said...

I cannot even imagine what it must be like to suffer from this. I too live to read, and having that taken away... wow. Thank you for posting this incredibly touching piece.

Olivia said...

I am fascinated by bizarre conditions, especially of the brain.

Six books a week is a lot. Maybe his brain quit!

The most unbelievable condition in the list at the bottom is Capgras Delusion, followed by visual agnosia. The brain is still quite a terra incognita.

Mellowdrama said...

Hi, Been awhile. I cannot even begin to imagine what your dad and Engel went through. Thank you for sharing this, shall try and find it at my local store. There is so much we don't know about the working of the brain. My dad has a neural condition that temporarily makes him lose control - for those few seconds he has no idea what he does. The condition has not been diagnosed despite our best efforts.
Take care and all the best, shall frequent your blog more often, I LOVE reading, I can't imagine my life without letters and alphabets.

Lotus Reads said...

@Heather ~ You're so welcome, this book was too good not to share!

@Olivia ~ The brain fascinates me too, that's why I am an avid reader of Oliver Sacks' books. I'm sure you've read him already, but if you haven't, you'd love his books.

@Mellow Drama ~ Thank you for stopping by. One of the best things about writing this post has been the personal sharings of some of the comment writers. I so appreciate you sharing about your dad and it's a shame there has been no diagnosis of his condition so far. Although much of the brain has been studied, it is just the tip of the iceberg and we have miles to go before we know its intricate workings.

Id it is said...

What an informative and inspiring post Lotus!
Call it coincidence or what you may but just recently I read Saramago's "Blindness" which made me appreciate my sense of sight a whole lot more than before, and now after I read your post I believe that after reading Engel's memoir(which I most certainly will) I'll value my reading and deciphering abilities a whole lot moreas well. As they say, you recognize and value a thing a lot more after you lose it.

Some of us who are addicted to reading cannot imagine life without it; Engel's agony on realizing his incapacity must have very nearly killed him! I can't wait to get my hands on this one though I have to admit I am a little apprehensive and sheepish about reading things that hit too close to home, and this one most certainly will; I'll probably have to prepare myself for it. I wonder if that is something many readers feel and do; get cold feet when they come upon something that hits home?

david mcmahon said...

Dear Lotus,

You took my breath away with the sheer power of this post.

Yours is always such a ``complete'' style in every sense, but today the personal revelation has given us a completely new dimension.

My father, a great reader and a man of amazing life experience, lost his ability to read after a stroke.

Bless you for this wonderful piece of writing.



Anali said...

This is a really powerful post. I had no idea what your father went through. I never understood this condition before. Seeing how the letters look to someone with this condition really brought it home. That would be so scary one day to just not recognize any letters. It is so amazing that the author was able to not only read again, but write a book! The power of the human spirit!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Id!

I remember "Blindness", your excellent review remains etched in my mind. What Engel suffered is the stuff nightmares are made of, but the calm, rational and humorous way with which he approaches his ailment will make you proclaim him your hero. This is not a sentimental read, but it will make you think...a lot.

BTW, and I should have mentioned this earlier, Engel's title is a sort of tribute to Oliver Sacks who wrote the famous "The Man Who Forgot How To Read".

@David ~ Thank you so much. Because your father went through the same thing,I am sure you found a lot to relate to in this post. I am usually reticent about sharing personal stories, but this one moved me so much, I had to. Thank you for stopping by, appreciate it.

@Anali ~ You are right, this story is testament to the power of the human spirit. I think we all underestimate ourselves sometimes, there is so much we could overcome if we only tried.

Cuckoo said...

I have been reading your posts thru my reader but commenting here only second time.

It was a wonderful review to say the least. Powerful & informative.

Lotus Reads said...

@Cuckoo ~ Welcome back and thank you so much for the comment, I am glad you enjoyed the review and that you stopped by to tell me so. Truly appreciate it.

Cereal Girl said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your father.

diyadear said...

oh dear.. thats such a terrible thing to happen. esp to a writer :(

J.S. Peyton said...

If someone were to ask me what was my worst nightmare this would be it. Hands down. Thanks for this post. I'll be reading this one very soon.

Alice Teh said...

This is a great post, Lotus! I'm touched. You're right. What matters is that Engel continues to read and that's the most important thing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts of the book.

Signing off from Sydney (on vacation), Alice

PS: I've added you to my list of "Blogs Alice Reads" -- you have a great blog! Thanks fo coming to visit me. :)

Lotus Reads said...

@CG ~ Thank you. He's much better now.

@Diya ~ I know! But all credit to him for overcoming the disability. Guess it wouldn't have been much of a story if he hadn't, no?

@Biblioaddict ~ True! It is my worst nightmare too. Scary!

@Alice ~ You are quite welcome! Thank you for adding me to your blogroll, I will be delighted to do the same! I look forward to visiting you again. Thanks for commenting even though you are on vacation at the moment.