About the book
Excerpted from The Man Who Forgot How to Read.
Copyright (c) 2007 by Howard Engel. Published by HarperCollins Canada.
Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
On July 31, 2001, Howard Engel picked up the morning newspaper from
his doorstep to find it read like a mixture of Serbo-Croatian and
Korean. He thought it was a joke, but the entire paper looked like
Cyrillic script, and so did his own books. During the night, he'd
suffered a stroke that had left him not only with a vision loss and a
damaged memory, but also a rare neurological condition -- alexia sine
agraphia. Howard Engel could no longer read. But ironically, he could
In his memoir, The Man Who Forgot How to Read, Howard
chronicles his experience with this potentially career-ending
affliction. At first he can't recognize an orange or remember names, let
alone read a word. But with determination, resourcefulness and humour,
combined with help from family, friends and some dedicated health
professionals (including the renowned neurologist and author Dr. Oliver
Sacks), he improves.
Eventually Howard does manage to read again, though slowly and
laboriously. He also returns to writing, and turns his experience into a
critically acclaimed novel, Memory Book, in which his alter
ego, the unassuming detective Benny Cooperman, suffers a mysterious head
injury and is confined to the hospital. (He still manages to solve the
As Dr. Sacks says in his afterword to Howard's memoir, "In The Man Who Forgot How to Read,
Engel tells his story from the inside, with extraordinary insight,
humour 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."
By his own admission, Howard Engel became "addicted to print" as a
boy, researching and writing plays for puppet shows in St. Catharines,
Ontario, in the 1940s. He spent the first decades of his professional
life writing for radio as a broadcaster and producer (with many years at
the CBC). Then in 1980, Howard turned his print addiction into a
literary career by creating the mild-mannered private eye Benny
Cooperman, who has a fondness for chopped-egg sandwiches and a knack for
Over the next 20 years, Howard wrote 10 Benny Cooperman novels,
making him one of Canada's most famous crime writers. He also penned two
other books of crime fiction (Mr. Doyle and Dr. Bell and Murder in Montparnasse) and three non-fiction titles (Crimes of Passion: An Unblinking Look at Murderous Love, A Child's Christmas in Scarborough and Lord High Executioner: An Unashamed Look at Hangmen ; Headsmen, and Their Kind).
Even after a stroke in 2001 left him unable to read, threatening both
his livelihood and his love of books, Howard overcame the odds and
continued to write. He has published three books since then: two Benny
Cooperman novels -- Memory Book and East of Suez -- and his memoir, The Man Who Forgot How to Read.
Howard's novels have been adapted for both television and radio, and
have been published in 15 countries around the world. The 78-year-old
author has won numerous awards for his work including the Harbourfront
Festival Prize and the Matt Cohen Prize (administered by the Writers'
Trust), and has received honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from two
Ontario universities (Brock University in St. Catharines and McMaster
University in Hamilton). In 2007, he was made a member of the Order of
Howard Engel is one of the founders of the Crime Writers of Canada, and he continues to live, read and write in Toronto.
Dr. Oliver Sacks on alexia sine agraphia
Alexia, or "word-blindness," as it was originally called, has been
recognized by neurologists since the late nineteenth century, and has
always been a source of fascination, for one thinks of reading and
writing as going together, and it seems bizarre, counterintuitive, that
someone should be able to write but be quite unable to read what they
have just written. It has often been observed that this alexia sine agraphia
is a purely visual problem; people with alexia have no difficulty, for
instance, recognizing letters or words if they are traced on the hand.
The intactness of such tactile reading, as well as of speech
recognition, showed that Engel did not have aphasia -- a disturbance of
language in general -- but a pure word blindness, the result of certain
areas of the visual cortex being cut off, by the stroke, from the
language areas on the same side of the brain. There was nothing wrong
with his eyes, and he could see letters perfectly well, but he could
not interpret them.
We normally think of reading as a seamless, indivisible act. One has
to encounter a disconnection such as Engel now had to realize that
reading, in fact, involves a number of separate processes and stages,
from basic perceptual processes to higher-level abilities to decipher
and interpret what one is seeing.
-- From the afterword to The Man Who Forgot How to Read
"In The Man Who Forgot How to Read, Engel tells his story
from the inside, with extraordinary insight, humour 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
"It is witty, insightful, moving without being sentimental, and it
keeps you turning the pages. I urge you to read it." -- Peter Robinson,
author of All the Colours of Darkness
"He uses his novelistic gifts to spin a tale that is equal parts
heart-wrenching, inspiring, and self-deprecatingly funny." -- Quill &
"Enthralling and engaging, Engel's memoir is like no other -- a
best-selling writer who is inflicted with a rare disease, wherein he
could still write but could no longer read, and how he triumphs over the
condition." -- Midtown Post
"This intriguing account of personal tragedy, overcome with grace and
humility, is an inspirational and instructive tale." -- Publishers
"His memoir manages to transcend...a self-consciousness that is
predicated on unreliable memories....[It avoids] jargon, hyperbole or
self-glorification. It finds humour in the grim." -- The Globe and Mail