Nonfiction: How a Stroke Became Genius
Howard Engel, afterword by Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Forgot How to Read (Thomas Dunne Books, 2008)
Engel is a Canadian detective novelist, and one morning in the summer of 2001, as he tries to look at the newspaper, he can't recognize the letters: “Panic should have hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. But instead I was suffused with a reasonable, business-as-usual calm. ‘Since this isn’t somebody’s idea of a joke, then it follows, I have suffered a stroke.’” A widower with a young son, he gets himself to the emergency room, where he learns his rare condition had indeed resulted from a stroke: “What alexia sine agraphia means is that while I am still able to write without difficulty, I can no longer read what I have written.” He has since trained himself to read in new, painstaking ways, including writing the decoded words in the air with his finger. Marvelously, he has kept careful journals and, by relying on mnemonic tricks and friends reading his drafts aloud to him, written a couple more novels.
Born in 1931, Engel grew up in St. Catharines, near Niagara Falls. Jewish and unathletic, born with, “an unfinished left hand … more like a paw with tiny ball-like fingers,” he wrote and performed his own puppet shows (with original handmade puppets), and after college went on to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. He didn’t write fiction, however, until he was in his late forties, and created a now well-known alter-ego, Benny Cooperman, a private investigator who, in the first-person, narrates how he slogs along with petty cases, and occasionally, with bookish resources and sad-sack fortitude, solves murders. Both Engel and Cooperman are pleasant, humorous company—modest and genial gabby misfits. If genre and professional writers are less snobby and pretentious than us academic sorts, they’re no less bookish and, in my experience, more widely read. They love books rather than the laws derived from books. They don’t make theories; they read: “I’m an addict of the printed word.” So Engel’s stroke hit him where it most hurt: “My life had been built on reading everything in sight. My jokes were based on reading, my take on current events was informed by reading. I was a one-trick pony, and reading was my trick.”
Even more compelling than this slim but remarkable memoir—or at least extremely enlightening as a complement to it—is Engel’s first post-stroke novel, Memory Book, wherein Benny Cooperman, also suffering from alexia sin agraphia (due not to a stroke but to a near-fatal blow to the head), solves a murder in spite of the confusion and “mislaid” memory: “When I get close to the present, my memory is not as certain. Things, images, are more like Jell-O that hasn’t set properly yet.”
Engel can’t explain to us or himself his urge to share his story with Oliver Sacks, but he did, and when, having begun composing the memoir, he visited Sacks here in New York, he found the same wonderful, fascinated neurologist he knew through his remembered readings. Sacks became the patron saint of this book, and Sacks’s appreciative afterword is on the money: “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.”
Engel compares his quest in The Man Who Forgot How to Read to that of another of Sacks’s acquaintances, Temple Grandin, the stockyard-animal scientist, who famously described herself as feeling like, “an anthropologist on Mars”: “In a small way, I was trying to do for stroke victims what Dr. Temple Grandin did for autism.” Engel wants to show us his post-stroke confusion, unimaginable except by someone deft enough to catch it while in its midst: “Not only am I trying to tell a story but, more importantly, I’m trying to also draw a picture of the state of my mind while I’m doing it.” Unforgettable.
ROBERT BLAISDELL is writing a biography of Lev Tolstoy. He teaches at Kingsborough Community College.