26 July 2009

Review: Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet

Two memoirs in such a short period of time is unusual for me, and two dealing with brain disorders no less. The first, of course, was The Man who Forgot How to Read, which I reviewed about a month ago, but read around the same time as this, Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet. This book deals with the way Savant syndrome, a form of Asperger's syndrome, and Synaesthesia combined in Tammet, record holder of most digits of pi recited from memory (22 514) and learner of the Icelandic language in one week.

This memoir is a record of how Tammet grew up and learned to become independent as an adult in spite of the difficulties his various syndromes gave him. It's also an explanation of some of the many ways his brain works differently from yours and mine, from his general lack of empathy to his experience of numbers as colours, shapes, and movements.

Opening paragraph:
One of the things I struggle with in writing about this book (and the reason it's taken me nearly a month to finish writing this) is distinguishing between the quality of the writing and enjoyment I get from the information it offers. It's not an especially well-written book. Sometimes it rambles or describes things Tammet couldn't possibly know about. Sometimes he latches onto a subject like a dog with a bone and doesn't seem to understand how tedious the subject actually is, such as the many many paragraphs he devotes to his own variation on solitaire. (He is aware of that tendency in himself, but that doesn't make it any less boring to know that he knows he can occasionally be dull and repetitious.) There is a sort of cautious and considered tone to the book that probably reads to most people as being simplistic. (My impression is coloured by having seen Tammet speak on television, when I got the impression of a deeply shy person who thinks everything through and then presents it very carefully.)

I'd have liked to read more about what Tammet described in interviews as learning how to experience emotions – learning what love is, for example – but I did feel that the book focused more on the difficulties of understanding emotions rather than how he overcame those difficulties.

On the better side, I found the actual content to be quite fascinating. There is nearly always something very interesting about the ways that the brain can go "wrong." Not that Tammet's brain is wrong, it just makes different connections than most people's minds make. A lot of things I've read about Tammet talk about how remarkable he is for his ability to describe the way he sees things – many people with similar conditions are unable to articulate the differences so clearly. Here is one quotation on the way he experiences words:

Some words are perfect fits for the things they describe. A raspberry is both a red word and a red fruit, while 'grass' and 'glass' are both green words that describe green things… Conversely, some words do not seem to me to fit the things they describe: 'geese' is a green word, but describes white birds ('heese' would seem a better choice to me), the word 'white' is blue while 'orange' is clear and shiny like ice. 'Four' is a blue word but a pointy number, at least to me. The colour of wine (a blue word) is better described by the French word vin, which is purple.
Other sections when he talks about his ability to process mathematical equations or to learn languages are similarly interesting because they are so different from the average experience.

As I said, reading the book is a bit of a mixed experience. I think it's more interesting to think about than it is to read, if that makes sense. I liked to read about the way his brain works, and I think he described it well, but I wish the actual writing of it had been a bit tighter.

Daniel Tammet has written two books, Born on a Blue Day and more recently Embracing the Wide Sky, which tries to explain more about the Savant mind and how the average person's mind isn't so very different. He's appeared on several talk shows, including The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos, which you can see here, and The Late Show, and was the subject of the documentary, Brainman. His website can be found here, Optimnem.co.uk.

Tammet, Daniel. Born on a Blue Day. London: Hodder, 2007.
Finished: 02 July 2009
Rating: 4 of 5 sieves of Eratosthenes
This was my 1st book in July and my 23rd in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

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