Book Review: Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing by Daniel Tammet

In his early school years, numbers were Daniel Tammet’s closest friends—each had a unique personality, shape, colour, texture and feel.   Number 6 was cold, dark and sad, 25 “the kind of number you would invite to a party”, and the number pi was “beautiful.”  He thought, felt and even wrote poems in a private language of numbers.  A “misfit… in a world made up of words.”

Later, when nearing matriculation from high school, Daniel, developed “an immense desire to communicate, aligned with a commensurate incapacity to do so for which English has no precise equivalent.”  He was saved by his German teacher, described as “a woman of infinite patience, a professional at making light of others’ mistakes, at correcting by example rather than by admonishment.”

Much later, he was diagnosed as a high-functioning autistic savant.

At 25, Tammet recited by heart the first 22,514 digits of pi, setting a European record, to the delight of an audience who sat entranced for more than five hours in Oxford’s ancient Ashmolean Museum.

He sees words as having shapes, textures and colours (the neurological phenomenon of synaesthesia) and believes this is a cause of his extraordinary memory for words of many languages.  He is fluent in English, French, Icelandic, Spanish, German and Esperanto, and understands much of many other languages.

At first, I thought the front cover design with its brightly-coloured bird standing in for ‘B’, a bitten apple supplanting ‘C’, and so on, to be insufferably twee; but only until I’d read Chapter 1, Finding My Voice.  I couldn’t put it down after that. Then I read it through two more times, something I have never done before.

Sub-titled Encounters with the Mysteries and Meanings of Language, this book is not only a treasure trove for lovers of words and language.  The imagery and musicality of Tammet’s unique way with words takes us along with him on his adventures, sharing his observations, thoughts and friends in Lithuania, Mexico, Africa, Iceland, the Isle of Mann and France.

The most surprising encounter for this reader was Les Murray.  In the chapter A Poet Savant, Tammet tells of their pen friendship blossoming into him completing the first French translation of the Australian’s poems, of Murray coming to France, and of them signing the book for purchasers.  As Murray told him: “we’re co-authors.”  Tammet writes, “words have been knots of beauty and mystery as long as I can remember. But Murray’s oeuvre was the leaven for my own literary beginnings.”

Tammet writes, in Talking Hands, of “the French, they of the Gallic shrug” teaching the world to sign. In ‘A Grammar of the Telephone’, he tells of how the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, “a boating man, thought the answerer should always start by exclaiming ‘Ahoy’; it was not one of his better ideas. His rival, Edison, proposed the alternative: ‘Hello’.”

Tammet says his first book, Born on a Blue Day, was seen by some British and American critics as only a one-off “‘disability genre’ memoir”.  “German, Spanish, Brazilian and Japanese readers saw something else, and sent letters encouraging me to continue writing.”

After he’d first read aloud (with a partner) from a French translation of Dostoyevsky’s L’Idiot, Daniel Tammet writes, “I could at last, read unencumbered by my self-consciousness, solely for the pleasure of learning new words and discovering new worlds.” As Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing has done for this grateful reader.

John Mancy is an occasional writer of flash fiction, retired barrister, foreign correspondent (Papua New Guinea, Vietnam), founding editor of sundry periodicals, casual lecturer and author of  a legal encyclopaedia subtitle on Animals.

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