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The Man Who Forgot How to Read

“I can see you like books,” Alan Yentob remarks as he steps over the threshold of Howard Engel’s Canadian home.

“Well, is there anything else?” the crime author replies, and this does indeed appear to be true in his case: every available wall is lined with tightly crammed bookshelves.

The question Engel poses is one he had to confront when, in 2001, he suffered a stroke that affected the left-hand side of his brain: the side responsible for visual recognition.

Feeling otherwise well, it was the altered appearance of letters that drew his attention to the fact that anything was amiss. Someone appeared to have played a prank on him: his morning newspaper was written in an entirely foreign alphabet, one he had no knowledge of. On closer examination, every household item containing the written word – from the book titles on his numerous shelves to the text on the cereal box – had been similarly altered.

“My library had been cleared out,” he said when his predicament struck him. “There was all that empty space. Being robbed of Dickens and Hemingway at the same moment – it was difficult to fathom, to say the least.”

It was a nurse at Mt Sinai hospital who informed him that, even though he had lost his ability to read, he could still write. The functions of reading and writing are quite separate. You do not need to visualise letters to write. In disbelief, the author conducted an experiment and found that it was true. For Engel, an avid reader as well as a writer, this offered limited comfort. He described his reaction: “It was like being told that the right leg had to be amputation but I could keep the shoe and the sock.”

But contine to write, Engel did. “It was one of the few things I could do.” In fact, it was only a few short months after his stroke that he began what was to become the best-selling novel in his Benny Cooperman series.

And Engel’s unfailing love of the written word caused him to adapt imaginatively to his new situation, demonstrating what a wonderful tool the brain is. Paintakingly, patiently, without medical advice and defying all expectation, he taught himself an entirely new way to read. Beginning by tracing the shape of the letters with his fingers, he then experimented by tracing the shape of the letters on the back of his teeth with his tongue. It may take him a month to read a book that previously might have taken him only a couple of days. But what else is there?

The Man Who Forgot How to Read by Howard Engel is published by Harper Collins

Imagine, The Man Who Forgot How to Read and Other Stories, is available to watch on BBC i-player this month. Do!