They hook you early, the pushers, even in pre-school. Maybe some of us have a greater weakness for it than others. It is a fierce addiction, reading, and from there it is a slippery slope to writing. Howard Engel was hooked young. Blame his parents; they read in the house. Soon he was picking his own library books and writing puppet shows. He could not be found without a two or more books on hand. As an adult, he wrote for radio then published a dozen detective novels. He was an addict of the printed word when he forgot how to read.
The Man Who Forgot How to Read is memoir by Engel of a stroke that robbed him of his ability to read. Alexia sine agraphia is a rare condition in which the victim maintains the ability to write, but not read. A frustrating condition, indeed. He could write, but not read what he had just written. Stroke cuts into memory, threatening one’s sense of self; but Engel’s identity was fixed in reading: “I was still a reader. The blast to my brain could not make me otherwise. Reading was hard-wired into me. I could no more stop reading than I could stop my heart. Reading was bone and marrow, lymph and blood to me.” (41)
Step by step, with the help of skilled therapists and dedicated family and friends, Engel learned to read from the beginning again. Once the reading skills were working again, the writing came naturally, first another detective novel in which his protagonist suffers a blow to the head, then this memoir. Engel’s refusal to accept the status of a “former reader”, and his victory over a stroke and brain damage to achieve it, should be a siren call to those who have not yet discovered a passion for reading. Unlike other addictions, the reading vice may take some effort to acquire, but then pays off in lifelong pleasure without regret. Want a fix?