I was born on 31, January 1979 – a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number nine or the sound of loud voices arguing. I like my birth date, because of the way I’m able to visualise most of the numbers in it as smooth and round shapes, similar to pebbles on a beach. That’s because they are prime numbers: 31, 19, 197, 97, 79 and 1979 are all divisible only by themselves and one. I can recognise every prime up to 9973 by their ‘pebble-like’ quality. It’s just the way my brain works.
It has been seven years since I came across this book and to this day I can recite the opening paragraph almost word for word. I don’t have a particularly good memory, but these few lines where the gateway to a new world, one I was instantly fascinated by and one that I still think of regularly.
Needless to say this is one of my favourite books.
You probably don’t know the author. He has published exactly three books, Born on a Blue Day being his first, which are mostly autobiographic. What makes them so utterly fantastic is that he is the only person on earth able to tell the stories in those books. He is – in the true sense of the word – unique.
If you haven’t heard of him, let me introduce to you, Daniel Tammet. 36 years old, born in London and currently lives in France. He has a website which offers French and Spanish language courses. But that is not all; He knows ten languages, holds the European record for reciting Pi up to the 22,514th digit, learnt Icelandic – said to be one of the hardest languages to learn – in a week, and he was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary. By now you will understand that he is quite out of the ordinary; he is a savant, a form of high-functioning autism.
Born on a Blue Day however is not just another book about autism, because the most fascinating thing about Tammet isn’t his savant syndrome. You will know of savant syndrome, depicted by Dustin Hoffmann in Rain man. It is based on real-life savant Kim Peek (1951-2009). Tammet is different in two ways: one is that he shows exceptional skills in more than one area – numbers and languages. The other, more important one, is that the usual traits of autism are not as prominent as they are with other savants, including Kim Peek. While there are many social situations that are very difficult, he is able to interact, live independently and describe what goes on in his brain.
This makes him the only autistic savant being able to explain the reactions in the brain first hand.
“Why learn a number like pi to so many decimal places? The answer I gave then as I do now is that pi is for me an extremely beautiful and utterly unique thing. Like the Mona Lisa or a Mozart symphony, pi is its own reason for loving it.”
In this autobiography, Daniel Tammet explains what day to day life as an autistic savant is like. From the early days of struggling to fit in, seeing things differently from everyone else, from strong autistic traits, to the diagnosis of his Aspergers’ Syndrome at the age of 25. It is about the way he can memorise Pi to his week of learning Icelandic, but also about the simple day-to-day, where the syndrome is noticeable. We see “9.99” everywhere, usually in large red letters if it is an offer in a shop. Imagine how confused your brain would be trying to decipher this, when the number nine pictures blue in your head. How can it suddenly be red?
This book is full of facts and truths about autism and savant life that without Tammet, we wouldn’t know about because no one has ever been able to live it and tell it in their own words and the world you enter is a fascinating one that you will never quite leave behind.
I still see pebbles on the beach and imagine if my brain could tell a story about the shapes and sizes; I see numbers and wonder what it would be like finding every price tag odd to look at. In 284 pages, you get a glimpse of a life you would never otherwise be able to enter.
Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet