Publisher: Harper Collins Canada (Aug 9 2007)
Format: Hardcover; pages: 157
Afterword by Oliver Sacks
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,