Sep 23, 2007
The Man Who Forgot How to Read by Howard Engel - review
The Man Who Forgot How to Read
by Howard Engel
HarperCollins, 176 pages, $24.95
“Like astigmatism on a drunken weekend.” “[A] film in which the soundtrack no longer matched the lip movements of the characters.” “Like being told that the right leg had to be amputated but that I could keep the shoe and sock.”
There are countless medical conditions that may befall a person, but it is unlikely there has been a more ironic misfortune than that which afflicts Canadian author Howard Engel.
Engel, creator of the successful Benny Cooperman mystery series, woke one day to discover that the front page of The Globe and Mail looked to written in a foreign language, “Cyrillic one moment and Korean the next…what looked like an a one moment looked like an e the next and a w after that.”
Engel had suffered a type of stroke called alexia sine agraphia, or “word-blindness,” a rare condition in which the afflicted can still write, but can no longer read. Recognizing the overwhelming irony of the condition as it applied to his livelihood, Engel writes, “I felt like a plumber told to stay clear of drains and lead pipes, or a banker told to avoid dealings with money.”
The Man Who Forgot How to Read – the title is a direct nod to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a work by famed neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks – is Engel’s memoir of rehabilitation, a work notable for its complete absence of self-pity. Certainly, no one could ever blame Engel for spiraling into depression, but his refusal to give up what he loves is inspiring.
It is not the likelihood of never writing again which fuels Engel’s initial despair, but the possibility that he will never again enjoy the simple pleasure of reading a book. “Reading was hard-wired into me,” he pines, devastated that the main pleasure of his life has been cruelly snatched away. “I could no more stop reading than I could stop my heart.”
As he comes to grips with his new situation, attending therapy sessions to help him adapt to a world where apples and grapefruits appear strangely similar, Engel begins to try and write again, facing each letter as a hieroglyph to be memorized. This is far harder than he anticipated, vividly describing it as “trying to move a ton of raw liver uphill by hand.”
Like the Cooperman mysteries (that last of which, Memory Book, was written after his stroke), Engel writes with a disarming simplicity of voice that may keep his mysteries humming, but unfortunately robs the story at hand of any tension.
In his guise as mystery writer, Engel excels at keeping the reader guessing as to the outcome. Here, the ending is never in doubt, and while this should not dissuade a person from reading Engel’s remarkable story, the lightness of his voice never fully captures the anguish he says he feels.
As Dr. Sacks himself says in the afterword, Engel’s story “is not only as fascinating as one of his won detective novels but a testament to the resilience and creative adaptation of one man and his brain.” Engel’s spirit in the face of his affliction is indeed stunning, but his hand is far surer in the realm of fiction than memoir.
Originally published (heavily expurgated version) in The Winnipeg Free Press, September 23, 2007.