Book Review: Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet

Daniel Tammet is an autistic savant who sees numbers as shapes, colors, and textures, and who can perform unbelievable feats of calculation in his head.  In 2004 he became something of a celebrity in England when he memorized and recited the first 22,000 digits of pi, setting a new world record.  This book is a memoir starting with his early childhood years and going all the way up to the present.

Daniel Tammet likens himself to the movie character “Rain Man”, and that characterization is true in many ways.  He has savant syndrome, an extremely rare condition which enables him to perform incredible feats of mental acuity, such as performing mathematical calculations at lightning speed, remembering names and random facts, and learning foreign languages.  He also has a compulsive need for order in his world.  He eats exactly 45 grams of porridge for breakfast every day, weighing his bowl with an electronic scale just to make sure.  He counts the number of items of clothing that he is wearing every day before he heads out.  He has to have his cup of tea at exactly the same time every day, or else he stresses out.  And when he gets stressed out, he soothes himself by counting.  But unlike Rain Man, he is able to live a fully independent life.

Tammet begins by describing what it is like to experience numbers as shapes, colors, or textures.  This is a condition called synesthesia, which results from a neurological mixing of the senses.  He describes how this enables him to perform calculations quickly by seeing how the numbers come together, and offers a theory that there was at least some degree of synesthesia involved in the beginnings of human language.He then describes his early childhood years.  During this time of life he was very prone to tantrums and did not make friends easily at all.  When he was in preschool he played by himself almost all of the time; by his own admission he saw the other children simply as the background to his sensory experiences of the world.

During his school years, his differences caused him to be isolated from his peers.  Sometimes the class would watch television programs that he did not want to watch because they were too scary for him.  At recess, he stayed in a far corner of the playground in order to be out of the way of the fast-moving kids and balls; because of this the other kids made fun of him as someone who “talked to the trees”.

It was during this season of life that Tammet began to feel the full force of his isolation and inability to make friends.  In the chapter entitled “Odd One Out”, he recounts the special difficulties of his autistic condition, such as taking turns in a conversation, listening to other people, staying on topic during a conversation, reading between the lines of what others are saying, or responding to statements not explicitly phrased as questions.  He often made up imaginary friends to cope with his inability to connect with real friends.

Adolescence was a turbulent time for Tammet.  Trying to adjust to the challenges of taking the bus to and from school, navigating the lunch line, not seeing any familiar faces in class, and making the transitions to recess and lunch was very intimidating when he first started at secondary school.  After he graduated, he had great difficulty finding a job but was eventually accepted into a volunteer program teaching English to Lithuanian students in the town of Kaunas.  This was his first experience traveling abroad, and it was very helpful to him in making the transition to independent adult life.

Next, Tammet describes how he met and fell in love with his partner Neil.  (Yes, Tammet is gay.  Get over it.  Or else don’t bother with this book at all.)  It just so happens that Tammet is wired in such a way that he finds it easier to experience relational intimacy with other males than with females, which translates into homosexual relationships.  Tammet does not touch on the sexual aspect of his relationship with Neil, which suits me just fine because I don’t want to know.

Next, Tammet describes the experiences leading up to his attempt to memorize and recite the first 22,000 digits of pi.  After successfully completing this challenge, he had the opportunity to meet Kim Peek, the savant who was the real-life model for the “Rain Man” movie character.  Finally, he took on the challenge of learning a new language (Icelandic) from scratch in only a week’s time.  The closing chapter describes his experience traveling to Iceland for this challenge.

At the end, Tammet recounts how he became a Christian, prompted by his discovery and study of the writings of G. K. Chesterton.  He describes the special challenges in being a Christian for someone with autism or Asperger’s.  Many such people have difficulty dealing with abstract concepts such as God, but Tammet is able to think deeply on spiritual matters such as life and death, love and relationships.  He does not attend church frequently because he is uncomfortable being in large crowds.  But when he does, it is an interesting and affecting experience for him.

Now Tammet is gay, and the fact that he professes to be a Christian will probably set off a lot of alarm bells.  Here is how I would respond:  In the first place, homosexuality is not sinful, only homosexual action.  In light of that, I would submit that it is possible to live in a homosexual relationship without being in sin, as long as certain sexual lines are not crossed.  Do Tammet and his partner cross those lines in their relationship?  We don’t know, from what is in the book.  Secondly, it is not our place to judge whether or not Tammet is truly Christian.  We as evangelicals get into a lot of trouble because we attempt to judge someone’s eternal destiny based on whether or not they believe thus and so, or whether they have prayed such and such prayer, or whether they hold the right position on abortion or homosexuality.  Instead, we should believe the best about others until we have clear and compelling evidence to believe otherwise.