Imagine opening the newspaper one morning to see the letters and words translated into a language you cannot understand. The author, Howard Engel, suffered a stroke that left him with the ability to write – but not to read what he wrote.
After reading Oliver Sacks article, “A Neuroligist’s Notebook – A Man of Letters” in the June 28th New Yorker, about the clinical details of Engel’s stroke, I wanted to know more. Sacks, the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings – later made into a movie with Robin Williams – explains the medical condition that leaves Engel forgetful and unable to recognize colors, faces – worst of all, unable to distinguish letters or read. Sacks summarizes Engel’s slow recovery in his article, connecting the medical information to a fascinating correlation to visual perception, and explains Engel’s using his sustained ability to write to recover his brain and to rescue himself.
The article ends with Engel’s determination…
“The problems never went away,,,but I became cleverer at solving them.”
And Sacks’ diagnosis…
“That he was able to do so is a testament to the adaptability of the human brain.”
After his stroke, despite his continued difficulty reading words, Engel wrote a memoir – The Man Who Forgot How to Read, and rebooted his writing career with a new detective novel, Memory Book.
The Man Who Forgot to Read is a slim volume that briefly outlines Engel’s rise to fame as a Canadian author, writing detective stories around his sleuth, Benny Cooperman. But most of the book is devoted to his dramatic life change when letters suddenly changed from English to “Korean markings” or “Serbo-Croatian” – unreadable to him.
Unlike Sacks’ medical approach, the memoir lnvites you inside the personal drama. With wit and charm, Engel softens his situation – “It was plain that I was no longer playing with fifty-two cards…” – yet, he clearly conveys his difficulties and subsequent depression, as he makes his way through rehab to recovery.
Determined to write another novel, Engel describes his trials as he writes, but cannot read what he wrote – no rewrites, no editing, no clues to where he stopped. When a computerized auditory program corrects his “Ma and Pa” to Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, he resorts to a support system of friends. They come through, as does he, and he successfully writes and publishes Memory Book, and is planning yet another novel – despite his continued problems with memory and reading.
Of course, I had to read the novel. Engel opens the book with his key character, the Canadian detective Benny Cooperman, suffering from the same “alexia sine agraphia” as the writer – he can write but cannot read. This time it’s a mysterious blow to the head – in just the right spot – that has left Benny, a Canadian Sam Spade, with little or no short term memory, and the inability to read.
Engel cleverly includes his own experiences in the hospital, in rehab, and in his methodical compensation for his injury, as the detective solves his injury as well as a murder. Memory Book is as much fun to read as any good detective story, and when you think how the author wrote it – without his own ability to read it – it’s amazing.
The Afterward by Oliver Sacks in Memory Book reiterates Engel’s story and adds more information on his medical history. If you pick up only the mystery book without all the background, you might want to read the Afterward first – makes the story even more amazing.