Howard Engel: 'The Man Who Forgot How To Read'

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Mystery writer Howard Engel woke up one morning terrified to find that he couldn't read the words in the newspaper. In his new memoir, Engel describes living with a rare condition called word blindness, which leaves him able to write, but unable to read.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk Of The Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Howard Engel is, by his own admission, a word addict. As a boy, he read voraciously. As a man, he learned how to turn that skill into a career, first as a broadcaster for the CBC then as the popular and award-winning author of a dozen crime novels featuring detective Benny Cooperman. And then one sunny summer morning, he picked up his newspaper to find the words incomprehensible. As soon as he figured out that it wasn't a joke, he realized he'd had a stroke that left him with a rare condition sometimes called "word blindness."

The writer and word addict could no longer read, but he could still write. His new memoir about his stroke and his struggles with his disability about memory and vision and life is called "The Man Who Forgot How to Read." Later in the program, we'll listen to excerpts of Senator Obama's speech in Berlin earlier today and talk about his two audiences, but first, if you'd like to talk with Howard Engel about his stroke, what it changed and what it didn't, or about Benny Cooperman, our phone number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

We're having some technical difficulties with our phones at this hour. We will be able to get some of your calls on, but probably the easiest way to reach us today is by email. That address again is talk@npr.org. And Howard Engel joins us now from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. Welcome to Talk of the Nation.

Mr. HOWARD ENGEL (Author, "The Man Who forgot How To Read"): I'm glad to be here.

CONAN: And on realizing that they'd had a stroke, many people might panic. You write that instead you felt an almost unnatural calm.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes, though I think it was part of the condition. You only - I was only aware of a disability when I actually needed it. If I didn't know that I had forgotten my name until I had to tell somebody my name or my address or other things. Everything seemed to be in place until the very moment I needed it. As if things kept dissolving on the tip of my tongue.

CONAN: Well that is an experience many of us as we get older have, and it's not unlike that experience of, well, the names are so elusive sometimes, but obviously much more on your case.

Mr. ENGEL: Oh, yes, because also the geography of Toronto - the geography of the world got a bit scrambled. I wasn't sure whether Beijing or Hong Kong were north or west of one another. You know, it was difficult. I had to check the atlases. And I used to be a map addict and now I couldn't even remember the name of my street or what the cross streets were.

CONAN: There's a great line in your book, you say, I was a one trick pony and reading was my trick, and I was going to say in this part of this program that where there is a lot of people in our audience that were in that boat. And frankly, I think you were writing about me. I think my one great skill is my ability to read extremely well and remember what I read, and that is how you made your career. Frankly, it's how I made mine, and it's so terrifying that that might be taken away from me.

Mr. ENGEL: Well, it would have been terrifying if the reality was constantly present when, in fact, it kept disappearing. It wasn't - I was only aware of it when I needed a piece of information, and then, even then, I was only aware of that fragment of information that had just gone missing. I wasn't aware of the totality, a whole library of things that were no longer available to me.

CONAN: So you didn't have a catalog of what you'd lost because you couldn't remember it?

Mr. ENGEL: That's right. It's sort of - I think that happens, a kind of compensation, so that it keeps panic at a staves end.

CONAN: How long were you in the hospital?

Mr. ENGEL: Oh, I was in the hospital about two weeks and then moved off to a rehab hospital where I was confined for about a month, a bit over a month.

CONAN: And the time that you spent on your back at the hospital, that sort of blurred all together. You write it seemed like, well, first, for one thing, you took an awful lot of naps.

Mr. ENGEL: Well, yes. Well I think in hospital and particularly in a rehab, the fact that you are in bed is really a filing device, it lets people know where you're supposed to, where you are, because I was allowed out for lunches and I met friends on the street and at their homes. I went home for weekends. It wasn't very rigorous. But I did come back and I was taking therapy from various people. So I had to make my appointments.

CONAN: The therapy, this one of the most interesting parts of the book about how people taught you or helped you to teach yourself about how to make, as you described it later, make your disability a friend.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes, well, I had three different flavors of therapists working with me including people who were interested in my physical well-being. But most of them were concentrating on my, on trying to get me reading again. And so I would go laboriously through a screed. I think it was about the First World War spy Mata Hari, and each day, I read a little more and brought her closer and closer to a rather sticky end.

CONAN: The firing squad.

Mr. ENGEL: I don't think we ever actually got there. And other therapists were trying to locate me in the city on my street and in the world, trying to re-familiarize myself with those things that used to be familiar.

CONAN: There's an interesting part of the book where you talk about some of the tests that you were asked to take. For example, one problem read like this, Sam received a red bike for his birthday. The present made him feel, A - cold, B - happy, C - afraid, and D - sad, and you also point out that this is a very poor test to give to a novelist.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes, because you could think of a good reason for answering all of those, all of the above. You could make a good case for it, and some of them were a little more ambiguous than that.

CONAN: Here's an email question that we have from Ari, or excuse me, from Annie. This is, how do you drive now that you cannot read?

Mr. ENGEL: The fastest thing in Canadian medicine is the speed of which they remove your drivers license.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ENGEL: My license was gone before I had a plastic tape on my wrist...

CONAN: And did you?

Mr. ENGEL: And I haven't pursued it. I thought that the ability to drive was so central to my personality that I'd never be able to deal without, with the world without it. But I found that it passed quite simply and painlessly. And that's what amazed me about it, the fact that I didn't care.

CONAN: And though you could read only very slowly and laboriously, as if you describe it you're reading hieroglyphs. The fact is you've never stopped writing.

Mr. ENGEL: No. I found that I could go on writing, although it seemed to be a poor substitute for being able to read. I mean, reading was Chaucer and Oliver Wendell Holmes and Shakespeare and Hawthorn and Whitman and Poe. And writing was only me. So, you know, that's a pretty one-sided equation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, you're not a bad writer, but nevertheless, could you read your own words?

Mr. ENGEL: Yes, immediately afterwards. When I picked it up later, I had to work my way through the first sentence and that took awhile, but then the whole gist of what came next, came back to me and I was able to go on. So, my speed of reading changes. It's slower at the beginning and then gets faster during each session.

CONAN: We're talking with Howard Engel, the mystery writer, the author of many detective novels starring Benny Cooperman, and the author of the ''The Man Who Forgot How To Read.'' We're talking about his stroke. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a phone call 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And, Mike is on the line. Mike calling us from Cleveland Ohio.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, Mr. Conan. I have a question for Mr. Engel.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

MIKE: I was wondering how not being able to read affected your proofreading on your revising process because for the writer I know that writing is important, but revising and proofreading is almost more important. I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: All right. Thanks for the call.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes. Well, Mike, I told my editor, and I could look him in the eye when I said it, that I don't do rewrites. And, rewriting is every - traditionally, everybody says the real writing takes place during the rewriting. Well, I had to get it right the first time. I mean, I did do rewrites but I usually worked with someone else while I was doing it, someone who would read a block of text to me so that I could get the feel of it. Because sometimes, although I, sentence by sentence I got it pretty well the way I wanted it, over a long period over a whole paragraph or page sometimes the text twisted in my hand like ''The Monkey's Paw'' in the old short story. It skewed and the help of a friend helped me straightened it out so it didn't act like a broken piece of metal.

CONAN: And I have to ask whether one of those friends was not in fact your alter ego, Benny Cooperman, the detective about whom you wrote so many books and then you started to write a new book about Benny Cooperman who'd had very similar problems too. Well, as you put it, detectives of course can't have strokes so somebody bops him on the head and he has to solve the mystery.

Mr. ENGEL: Exactly. Exactly so. Except that the fiction came first. I wrote a book called ''Memory Book'' and that was my first test of my abilities to write. I mean, could I still do it? Could I still do the trick, and the memoir came later. And there, the chief confusion was, well, did I say it all in the fiction? Did I give all the good lines to Benny Cooperman? Was there anything left for me to say?

CONAN: There was plenty left for you to say and among them the process of writing that book about Benny and Benny's problems lying in that bed and how he figured it out and many the same problems that you have of course.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes, I guess it was like that. I found that the hospital experience was so real and I remembered so many vignettes that took place everyday that I couldn't just throw it away. I mean, my mother and just about everyone else whoever talked to me about writing said write about what you know. And when I came out of the hospital, that, the hospital, was what I knew.

CONAN: We're talking with Howard Engel about his new book ''The Man Who Forgot How To Read: A Memoir.'' It's got an afterword by Oliver Sacks, M.D. We'll talk about Howard Engel's relationship with Oliver Sacks and how they work together to some degree on his illness and on his book. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR.News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A bit later in the hour, we'll get reaction from Berlin and from you to Barack Obama's address earlier today and listen to what some of what he had to say in the Tiergarten(ph). Right now, we're talking about ''The Man Who Forgot How To Read.'' Howard Engel was and still is a popular mystery writer when a stroke left him unable to decipher words. He's just released his story in a new book called ''The Man Who Forgot How To Read: A Memoir.' If you'd like to talk with Howard Engel about his stroke, what it changed, and what it didn't, our phone number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And Howard Engel, I mentioned earlier you spent many years as a broadcaster for the CBC. You're in CBC Studios in Toronto now. Is this the same building you used to work in?

Mr. ENGEL: No. The CBC when I first started was an old girls' school and after many, many years it's gone back to being a girls' school, this time a ballet school on Jarvis Street. I think the CBC helped cleaned up that neighborhood so it's living higher on the hog than it once was.

CONAN: I'm sure nobody ever made jokes about the old girls' school.

Mr. ENGEL: No, no.

CONAN: No. Never. Heaven forbid. But, I wanted to ask you, a lot of people might suggest that since you can't read, why don't you listen to books on tape?

Mr. ENGEL: Well, I - somebody suggested that fairly soon after I came home and introduced me to a system and I immediately put it into play that was going to read back what I just written. And, so I wrote something about Benny's Cooperman, Benny's mother and father whom he called Ma and Pa and the machine read back to me Massachusetts and Pennsylvania for Ma and Pa. So, I gave up sooner after that. So, I've been struggling along without mechanical aids pretty well.

CONAN: You also write about your love of newspapers and early on the book, the lonely idea that you could possibly get along without reading the comics everyday. You got home and found that the presence of unread newspapers in your house was confusion, distraction.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes. Not just confusion and distraction but almost physically noisy that it bothered me. And so, I stopped my newspaper subscriptions and went to a neighborhood cafe and they, my friends at the cafe, became my morning gazette. And we've continued that way. I pick up my word on the street from what I hear and overhear.

CONAN: And yet it must be difficult after all those years not to have that, your Globe and Mail every morning.

Mr. ENGEL: Oh, yes, it was like an amputation.

CONAN: Here's a...Oh, I am sorry go ahead.

Mr. ENGEL: No, go ahead.

CONAN: I was just going to ask an email question...

Mr. ENGEL: Over to you...

CONAN: Okay. This is...

Mr. ENGEL: Canadians are so polite, you know.

CONAN: Well, I know that, but we try to be polite sometimes south of the border too. Here's an email question from Jeff. What would be the one piece of advice you would give to someone trying to do something seemingly impossible, now that you've written whole books without being able to read?

Mr. ENGEL: Oh, that's a big one. I suppose just keep at it. Keep working at the edges of the disability and find out and you'll discover that some things are getting better. And that other things are getting better at a faster rate. It's slow going. You know, I keep thinking of poor old Mata Hari languishing, waiting for me to be able to read fast enough to finish her off. But I think that you have to work at the limits and get help. There are professionals around who are specialists. And it's wonderful to find out that you're not the first person who ever broke in to that silent sea.

CONAN: One of the specialist you managed to contact in, and certainly not your regular doctor by any stretch of imagination, was the famous doctor and writer Oliver Sachs. There was case that he had that was quite similar to the one that you had and eventually you went to see him in New York. And there's an interesting question that you ask yourself in the book. That you were unclear as to why you went to see him.

Mr. ENGEL: Well, yes, I guess I was still recovering when working with a therapist at the Toronto rehab. It occurred to me that I could write a book and give it a title that looked like it had been written by Oliver Sachs. "The Man Who Forgot How to Read" is so similar to so many of his titles in his book, "The Man Mistook His Wife for a Hat."

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. ENGEL: And so, almost on a bet, I decided to write him a letter. And did so, and got an answer which was very polite and formal but that seemed to end it. And then almost within the next day or two, I got another answer, another letter from him asking me if he could quote from my letter in an article he was writing for the New Yorker magazine. And he did. He went on to quote me at some length in the magazine and also in the correspondents that went along with that. He invited me to come down to New York or to drop in on him when I found myself in New York. And we did and I've seen him in New York and also in Toronto, a couple of times when he's come up here. We've had breakfast together and have got together and I've gone to some of his speeches.

CONAN: And he calls what you were able to do, the, your willingness to work and your willingness to fight through. He calls it heroic. Is that something that you would agree with?

Mr. ENGEL: Oh, I don't know. I don't give labels to myself. It's hard enough to get through the day. I just try to get to the end of this page. And then turn it over and write another. I don't set long-term goals for myself, not at my age. If I can get through this page, this chapter, even this sentence, I am delighted.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Randy, calling us from Wisconsin.

RANDY (Caller): Yes, Howard, it struck me. I have a busy life and I tend to read Publishers Weekly and reviews about people. I trust them a lot and I don't recall something - have you always been so sort of brilliantly humorous?

Mr. ENGEL: I don't know. Let's see, I've never been accused, I was never accused of that by my grade two teacher.

RANDY: You're just, you're sort of George Burn-ish. You've cracked up your host there a few times and I find myself that way. I am wondering if it sort of unveiled an incredible talent in you. I find this - when I've struggle through things all the sudden you find this talent. I must say I am struck by it.

Mr. ENGEL: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Might want to consider a new career in stand-up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ENGEL: Yes, I might. I might. I once sent some pieces to different humorists. I think I sent a few to a couple of American stand-ups when I was living in London, England. But the character Benny Cooperman, I guess he's sort of funny because I tried to turn the table on what existed, the hard-boiled private eye. And I tried to create a soft-boiled private eye and he came out looking at the world through eyes that saw things from a strange angle. And saw the funny side. You know, it's difficult to imagine Sam Spade going home for dinner and having a wife to come home to. Or turning up for dinner on a Sunday evening for parents. So I gave Benny all of that paraphernalia with small town life. You know, Benny can't follow somebody down the street without three or four people telling us, calling out to him, Hi, Benny, you following somebody? Mr. ENGEL: Yes, that's right. Benny is the other side of that coin.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

RANDY: You are delightful.

Mr. ENGEL: Oh, thank you very, very much Randy.

RANDY: Yeah.

CONAN: Let's go now to Leah. And Leah is with us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

LEAH (Caller): Hello. I am 42 years old and have suffered with a reading disability all my life. Although I love reading and love - I love stories, and when I was a child, once called "Maryhill 2000," a mystery radio story, and just loved it immensely. But I wasn't diagnosed with reading disability until 1994. So, I went through my life just being labeled as lazy, as not trying not hard enough, you know, not wanting it. And even now, I want to - I have a bunch of books that I haven't read. Only the ones I have on tape. Some of them I've started but haven't finished. I'm now at the point in my life where I would like to do some writing. But it's hard to do when you can't spell. Where is the resources to help a person who wants to improve reading or get around with reading disability when you don't have therapist and doctors at your beckon call?

Mr. ENGEL: Well, that's a good question. The, I think there must be people near you who specialize in that kind of thing. Ten or 15 years ago, it was hard, they were harder to come by. But now, they're coming out of the woodwork and making themselves known. And I think you have to do a bit of research to find out which ones are closer to you. But they're finding more and more out about the process, how the brain reads. I mean, it came to some people's surprise that I could go on writing even though I couldn't read any longer. That came as a big surprise. So, things are happening all the time and, so I just suggest, that's about all I can say on that.

LEAH: So is there - they're called a reading specialist? A reading therapist?

Mr. ENGEL: Yes. I'd check the, your nearest hospital and find out or get, go through your doctor who could find out from the, where the specialists are hiding.

LEAH: Because here is what I'm running to, is a literacy program. And it's...

Mr. ENGEL: Yes, but don't worry about your spelling. The spelling, if my publishing career depended on my spelling, I'd still be a non-starter.

CONAN: And don't worry about your spelling. If I could spell, I wouldn't have to work in radio.

Mr. ENGEL: That's right.

LEAH: OK.

CONAN: Thanks, Leah. And good luck to you.

LEAH: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with...

Mr. ENGEL: Thanks.

CONAN: Talking with Howard Engel about his book "The Man Who Forgot How to Read. A Memoir." And if you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org, and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's talk now with Pete. And Pete's on the line with us from Oswego in New York.

PETE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Pete.

PETE: I suffered a massive stroke about 10 years ago, and I had to go through a great deal of re-learning as far as reading goes. I really enjoy reading. I don't know what I'd do without it. And I wondered if your listener reads -I read in a very staccato method. In other words, a Steve, Dick and Jane, you know I can't read phrases any longer. And so it take me a very long time to read and it's still enjoyable. It's just, and also my retention is little to nothing. I wondered if your guest had problems with that, was retention also, when he reads now.

Mr. ENGEL: Oh yes. If I try to remember the eight items in a news broadcast I can sometimes remember four of them, if I'm lucky. If I write down a cue word that will bring them back to mind, then I'd do better on my score. But retention is an important aspect of the whole difficulty. And I think that's something you have work out. Did you ever hear of a game called Kim's game? Where you put a bunch of objects on a plate, cover them up after you've had a chance to look at them for a minute and try to write down what the objects were.

CONAN: This is from the Rudyard Kipling novel, right?

Mr. ENGEL: Exactly. Yes. Kim.

CONAN: Just go on. He was being trained to be a spy.

Mr. ENGEL: He was being trained for the secret service. The big game, as he called it. And that was part of his training. Living on the streets of Lahore, I think gave him a leg up on the street life of the community, because he spoke a bunch of the languages he'd learned as a kid hanging around, not at all like the son of the museum's curator, which Kipling's father was. So, his alter ego got around a bit more than Kipling did.

CONAN: Well, try Kim's game then.

PETE: OK. I'll have to look that up and try it.

CONAN: All right.

PETE: To your previous caller, too. I saw a neuro-ophthalmologist. They have neuro-ophthalmologists, believe it or not, out there. And she helped me along a little bit and encouraged me.

CONAN: All right. Well, that might be an avenue of approach then. Thanks very much for the advice.

PETE: Okay.

CONAN: Thanks, Pete.

PETE: Thank you. Bye bye.

CONAN: Bye bye.

Mr. ENGEL: Thank you.

CONAN: And Howard Engel, we just have a couple of minutes with you left, and I wanted to ask you, at this point, do you still see therapists? Are you still working on improving your reading?

Mr. ENGEL: I'm still working. Well, I still - I've never been away from a book, you know. I still buy books all the time and take them home and read them. Some I find easier to read than others, some I throw across the room in frustration. But I keep at it, you know, I'm, as usual, I'm in the middle of three novels, and not the ones I'm writing but the ones I'm reading. And it's just slower. Everything is slower. It takes long. But I'm dogged, I guess. I didn't know I was dogged but the, my difficulties have shown me that I've got more canine in me than I thought.

CONAN: And will Benny Cooperman write again?

Mr. ENGEL: Oh, yes. Benny Cooperman is out in a new adventure called "East of Suez." I take Benny out of the small town in Ontario where he lives and take him to a made-up country along the Malay Peninsula, where it doesn't matter that he can't read the street signs because he can't read.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Howard Engel, I think you should try that stand-up idea. Howard Engel, thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. ENGEL: It's been a great pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Howard Engel is the author of many detective novels featuring Benny Cooperman. His new book, though, is "The Man Who Forgot How To Read: A Memoir." And he joined us today from the studios at the CBC in Toronto. Coming up, we'll listen to portions of Senator Barack Obama's speech in Berlin today and get reaction from both sides of the Atlantic. If you had a chance to listen to his speech, give us your reaction, 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'The Man Who Forgot How to Read'

Man Who Forgot How To Read Book Cover, Howard Engel

My name is Howard Engel. I write detective stories. That's what I tell people when they ask me what I do. I could say I'm a writer or a novelist, but that raises a false echo in my brain, so I'm happier with the more modest claim of writing detective stories. I've written quite a few of them.

Before I started writing I was a reader. I read widely, everything from the John, Mary and Peter primer of my early childhood to Corn Flakes boxes when there was nothing more inspiring handy. I've been a reading junkie since public school. I played little baseball because I was searching with Lancelot for the Holy Grail and helping to free the widow's sons from the Sheriff of Nottingham's henchmen. I came home from summer camp without a tan because of books and comic books. I was reading about astronomy before I knew where the nearest drug store located. When I came home from university, my family didn't know how to talk to me; I was so full of books, I was no longer able to understand a request to pass the salt without a philosophical discussion on the nature of joint ownership or state capitalism. When I lived in Europe, and I became frustrated with my lack of fluency in French, Greek or Italian, I sought out the local English bookstore.

I was in fact a very busy fellow, writing about my home town, St. Catharines, Ontario, and turning it into the murder capital of the world. Benny Cooperman, my personal private investigator, has been successful in more than a dozen novels, several short stories, radio broadcasts and two films. His name has turned up in crossword puzzles in the Los Angeles Times. He is doing well. Or, at least, he was doing well when I, the author of his being, was stricken with a sudden stroke in 2001, which put us out of the writing business by robbing me of the thing I loved above all things: the ability to read.

This book is about the road block. About how I coped, the people who helped me along the way and how I found my road back into the mysteries of what reading and writing are all about. It's a success story, in a way, because at the end of this story I am writing again. Not only that, but I have had another Benny Cooperman book published. It's a story with palpable commercial possibilities, but that is not the reason I wrote it. For me it is much more important to look back and remember all the steps that got me where I am. I need to know that so I won't forget that there was a struggle along the way and that there was a small army of people who helped me climb all those steps.

From The Man Who Forgot How to Read Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. copyright © 2007 by Howard Engel All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

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