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The Writer Who Forgot How to Read

What happens to a writer who can no longer read? NPR’s Morning Edition presents this fascinating (true) story of Canadian novelist Howard Engel, who forgot how to read—literally—after suffering a stroke. Engel managed to teach himself to read again and shared his story with neuroscientist Oliver Sacks.

When he looked at the front page — it was the Toronto Globe and Mail, an English-language journal — the print on the page was unlike anything he had seen before. It looked vaguely “Serbo-Croatian or Korean,” or some language he didn’t know. Wondering if this was some kind of joke, he went to his bookshelf, pulled out a book he knew was in English, and it too was in the same gibberish.

Engel had suffered a stroke. It had damaged the part of his brain we use when we read, so he couldn’t make sense of letters or words. He was suffering from what the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene calls “word blindness.” His eyes worked. He could see shapes on a page, but they made no sense to him. And because Engel writes detective stories for a living (he authored the Benny Cooperman mystery series, tales of a mild-mannered Toronto private eye), this was an extra-terrible blow. “I thought, well I’m done as a writer. I’m finished.”

To find out how Engel learned to read again, watch this animated video—created and narrated by San Francisco artist Lev Yilmaz—which dramatizes Engel’s story:

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