To most of us, numbers seem cold, cut and dried. But to Daniel Tammet, author of the 25 beautifully crafted essays that make up Thinking in Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math (Little, Brown and Company, $26), numbers are lively and nuanced.
The author of Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, a memoir about his life as a high-functioning autistic savant, and Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind, about brain function, Tammet gained fame in 2004 when, at age 25, he recited 22,514 digits of pi from memory. His literary efforts, however, prove he is as capable with words as he is with numbers — a rare combination that rewards his readers.
“Hot under my onion layers of clothing, I carry a shirtful of perspiration back into the house,” he writes in “Snowman,” a reflection in Thinking in Numbers in which he describes the sound of falling snow as “someone slowly rubbing his hands together.” Another essay muses on whether Anne Boleyn, who reportedly had six fingers on each hand, might have invented an extra number for her extra digits.
But Tammet’s finest prose is reserved for his family. He notes that he and his eight siblings “existed only in numbers. The quality of our quantity became something we could not escape.” In an essay partly about how economic inequality is passed down through the generations, he recounts a story his father told him about returning home from a childhood vacation to the sight of his family’s furniture in the front yard, “the image of a home turned inside out, its intimacy smashed, its innards spewed.”
Another essay about his inability to predict the behavior of his own mother mixes mathematical observations (at twice his age, his mother has “half of her that I cannot see”) with elusive attempts to create a standard model for “mother” and determine how she deviates from the norm. “Try as I might,” he concedes, “I cannot figure her out.”
With his elegiac style and unique insights, Tammet leaves even mathphobic readers with a new understanding of the poignancy — and the poetry — of numbers and an appreciation for math as not just a black-and-white science but an art.