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Born on a Blue Day

Born On A Blue Day is a journey into one of the most fascinating minds alive today — guided by its owner himself. Daniel Tammet sees numbers as shapes, colors, and textures, and he can perform extraordinary calculations in his head. He can learn to speak new languages fluently, from scratch, in a week. In 2004, he memorized and recited more than 22,000 digits of pi, setting a record. He has savant syndrome, an extremely rare condition that gives him almost unimaginable mental powers, much like those portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man.

Daniel has a compulsive need for order and routine — he eats the same precise amount of cereal for breakfast every morning and cannot leave the house without counting the number of items of clothing he's wearing. When he gets stressed or is unhappy, he closes his eyes and counts. But in one crucial way Daniel is not at all like the Rain Man: he is virtually unique among people who have severe autistic disorders in that he is capable of living a fully independent life. He has emerged from the other side of autism with the ability to function successfully — he is even able to explain what is happening inside his head.

Born on a Blue Day is a triumphant and uplifting story, starting from early childhood, when Daniel was incapable of making friends and prone to tantrums, to young adulthood, when he learned how to control himself and to live independently, fell in love, experienced a religious conversion to Christianity, and most recently, emerged as a celebrity. The world's leading neuroscientists have been studying Daniel's ability to solve complicated math problems in one fell swoop by seeing shapes rather than making step-by-step calculations. Here he explains how he does it, and how he is able to learn new languages so quickly, simply by absorbing their patterns.

If you've read this one, please share your thoughts. Did you enjoy it? Is it well-written? Is the subject matter interesting? Does the writing style have particular strengths (or weaknesses)?
2007 Apr 27
Comment by Jonadab
[user pic]
Comment edited by the author, 2007 Apr 28.

I found this book rather interesting. It is well-written and engaging, and the main character (the author himself) is interesting to get to know. The reader can sympathize with him from fairly early in the book. The opening paragraph had me hooked right away. That's usually a good sign.

As the next few pages progressed, I began to worry that the entire book would be a loose collection of examples of synesthesia. Then the first chapter ended, and the second chapter began a chronological journey through the author's life. The book is indeed well organized.

I found this book rather interesting. It is well-written and engaging, and the main character (the author himself) is interesting to get to know. The reader can sympathize with him from fairly early in the book.

The cover is a bit misleading with the tagline, "inside the extraordinary mind of an autistic savant". The author is not, in fact, autistic, and never was. This becomes immediately clear upon reading the first pages of the book. He does have Asperger's syndrome, but although Asperger's is considered to be loosely related to autism, it is certainly not the same. It is a much milder disorder, much less debilitating, and much more common. It is normal for someone with Asperger's to lead a more or less normal life. Several major Silicon Valley CEOs have been diagnosed with it. There was an article on Wired a while back entitled The Geek Syndrome, which seems to cover Asperger's pretty well, at a layman's level, so I'm not going to detail it further here. Long story short, I consider this tagline disingenuous on the part of the publisher.

The more interesting thing about the author's mind is indeed (as was hinted from the first paragraph) his pervasive synesthesia, and it IS fascinating, particularly so because it is a first-person account. The first several chapters of the book, covering the author's early childhood, are particularly interesting.

I am writing this review without having actually finished the book. Another book has pulled me away from it for the time being, but I intend to get back to it and at least read more of the account of the trip to Lithuania, which was only just starting where I left off. That another book was able to pull me away is not a significant criticism. In the first place, this happens to me all the time, and in the second place, the book that pulled me away is by one of my favorite authors. So this is more a caveat about my review, than about the book itself. Caveat lector.

Later in the book, the author reveals that he is a practicing homosexual. This is not by any means the focus of the book, however, and it does not appear to color the remainder. For a discerning adult, I would say that the book is still interesting and, indeed, valuable. But I thought I would be remiss if I did not mention it. I have little doubt that a significant portion of the critical acclaim this book has received is due at least in part to the fact that the author is homosexual. Nonetheless, it does not follow that the book does not deserve some significant acclaim. It is rare, in my opinion, to see a non-fiction book about a fascinating subject like this receive any significant attention in the kinds of sources where this one has been written up — library-oriented publications particularly. Nonetheless, although the critics may like it for the wrong reasons, they are not wrong to like this book.