The Writer Who Couldn't Read : Krulwich Wonders... Imagine you wake up and can't read. The letters on the page have turned into squiggles. They make no sense. Howard Engel, a writer of detective stories, has this condition, but amazingly, has found a way to trick his brain to almost read again.
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Listen To A Man Read With His Tongue

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The Writer Who Couldn't Read

Listen To A Man Read With His Tongue

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Next, we have a mystery from NPR's Robert Krulwich. It involves a newspaper and then a finger finally, a tongue.

Mr. HOWARD ENGEL: When I woke up in the morning, I wasn't aware that it was any different from any other morning.

ROBERT KRULWICH: It was July 31st, 2001. Howard Engel was at home in Toronto, and as usual, he went to the front door.

Mr. ENGEL: Picked up the morning paper and opened it up and found that it seemed to be written in Serbo-Croatian or Korean or...

KRULWICH: What paper was it?

Mr. ENGEL: The Toronto Globe and Mail.

KRULWICH: So that's an English-language paper, right?

Mr. ENGEL: Yes.

KRULWICH: But today, it was written in Croatian?

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah, that's right. Yes.

KRULWICH: And what do you do for a living?

Mr. ENGEL: Oh, I'm a writer. Yes, I write detective stories.

KRULWICH: (Reading) Mitzy's(ph) eyes had narrowed. I'd have given a million to know what was going on inside her head at that moment.

Mr. ENGEL: I've written quite a few of them.

KRULWICH: So finding your daily newspaper has now suddenly flipped into secret code was kind of...

Mr. ENGEL: Something strange and surprising.

KRULWICH: So what did you think?

Mr. ENGEL: Well, first of all, I thought this was a joke. Somebody's - it's a gag. It must be my birthday or something. And so I looked immediately at an inner page and found that it was still the same Serbo-Croatian, and that seemed to lead well beyond the length of any joke.

KRULWICH: And meanwhile, your chairs, tables, radio, that kind of thing...

Mr. ENGEL: Everything else was quite ordinary, in its usual place.

KRULWICH: But when he went to his bookshelf and opened up a book that he knew was in English, there it was again.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes.

KRULWICH: The same weird hieroglyph, like a foreign language.

Mr. ENGEL: Very strange.

KRULWICH: So that's when he realized...

Mr. ENGEL: I've had a stroke.

Dr. OLIVER SACKS (Neurologist): Yes, he does have a stroke and he's told us...

KRULWICH: According to the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, who later got interested in this case...

Dr. SACKS: He's told us this affects a small portion of the visual cortex. What that means is that a specific area...

KRULWICH: The part of the brain that we use when we read, in Howard, was now broken. And without that area, says another neurologist, Stanislas Dehaene, Howard could no longer recognize words, written words. And there is another name for this.

Dr. STANISLAS DEHAENE (Neurologist): Word blindness.

Mr. ENGEL: Word blindness, yes, is exactly it - that I see a mass of letters, and I have to decipher them.

Dr. DEHAENE: It is a rather rare impairment. Many of these patients never recover.

Mr. ENGEL: It sort of hit me in the funny bone.

KRULWICH: Yeah, 'cause if you can't read, how are you ever going to write anything?

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah, of course. And I thought, well, I'm done as a writer, that I'm finished. And what was I going to do?

KRULWICH: But now, things took an odd turn. What you're going to do, the nurses told him at the hospital, is you're going to write your name on a piece of paper. Howard thought, well, how am I going to write if I can't read? Those two things come together.

Mr. ENGEL: Exactly, exactly.

KRULWICH: But the nurse said, come on, try it. And to his amazement, not only could he write, he could read what he'd written.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes. It was legible to me.

KRULWICH: As long as his hand was moving across the page.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes. Yeah, it did that while I was writing it.

KRULWICH: But why? Why could he read words when he was writing but not after?

Dr. SACKS: Well, well, well, this is the nature of writing - you know what you're writing.

KRULWICH: When you write a word like cat, particularly for the umpteenth time, says Dr. Sacks, your brain says, OK, my hands recognize this C-A-T pattern. It's the pattern that means...

(Soundbite of cat meowing)

KRULWICH: Yeah, the meow animal. I don't have to see the word cat, I can feel it in my hands. We all can do this. Close your eyes, says Dr. Dehaene. Now, you write cat in the air with your fingers. You automatically know what it is you're writing.

Dr. DEHAENE: You don't notice it because it's become non-conscious. It's become totally automatic. But it still is there. The motoric memory of letters helps in the recognition.

KRULWICH: And once Howard realized that writing gave him a chance to read again, he began to train himself to read with his fingers. Nobody told him how. It was slow - a very torturous process.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes. You might put some broken glass in that description.

KRULWICH: And the way he did it, says Dr. Sacks, is whenever he tried to read:

Dr. SACKS: Consciously, in part unconsciously, Howard found himself copying the letters of words he read with his hands.

KRULWICH: So he would put his finger right on the page, on top of a word like cat, and then he'd trace the C and then the A - the word became intelligible.

Mr. ENGEL: I've done that with my fingers on the word when I'm trying to make out words.

KRULWICH: And tracing those shapes, he says...

Mr. ENGEL: Seems to help.

KRULWICH: Howard couldn't use his eyes to read cat - his visible brain wasn't working after the stroke - so instead he jumped to a different, healthier part of his brain, the part that controls motion. And in effect, he told his brain: We're going to learn to read by a different route. And he wouldn't quit.

Mr. ENGEL: Well, I never stopped; I never stopped. I seem to be hardwired to reading.

KRULWICH: And over the years, he's learned to trace more and more efficiently so he can get just a bit faster and faster. He's still nowhere near normal.

Mr. ENGEL: You know, last night they were playing "The Magnificent Seven."

KRULWICH: The Japanese version. It's the movie called "The Seven Samurai," by Akira Kurosawa. The subtitles are in English, and Howard can almost keep up with them.

Mr. ENGEL: So you only read half the sentences.

KRULWICH: But still, he's improvising.

Mr. ENGEL: I've also tried writing on the roof of my mouth with my tongue.

KRULWICH: Meaning that he'll trace the letters C, A and T on the roof of the mouth, which actually goes faster - though this is a little crazy, but it works.

Mr. ENGEL: It is, yeah, it is.

KRULWICH: And what do you do now, you were saying?

Mr. ENGEL: Now, I've moved it to my lower teeth until they wear out.

KRULWICH: What do you do with your lower teeth?

Mr. ENGEL: Well, I mean, I just sort of trace the word in my mind with actually moving my tongue to form the letters.

KRULWICH: At this point, almost nine years now after his stroke, Howard is reading fast enough. He's begun to write books again. He's produced another Benny Cooperman detective novel.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: In this one, Benny Cooperman, a private eye, wakes up in a hospital wondering: Why am I here? Have a suffered a stroke? Well, no, he hasn't, because, says Howard...

Mr. ENGEL: Detectives don't have strokes.

KRULWICH: That would be too wussy, so you didn't do that.

Mr. ENGEL: No. I hit him over the head. I clobbered him and got him into the hospital with almost exactly my symptoms. And he had to figure how he got to the hospital, who hit him on the head, what kind of case was he working on that brought him there?

KRULWICH: But you know he's going to figure it out - first, because he's Benny Cooperman and second, because of the incredible plasticity of the human brain.

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: At, you can find a cartoon that imagines what Howard saw when he picked up the paper that day.

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