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The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
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The Periodic Table (original 1975; edition 1996)

by Primo Levi

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2,647422,258 (4.14)120
Member:crimson-tide
Title:The Periodic Table
Authors:Primo Levi
Info:Everyman's Library (1996), Hardcover, 241 pages
Collections:Read but unowned, Read & released (inactive)
Rating:****
Tags:nonfiction, R04, released, memoir, translation, italy

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The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

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English (36)  Spanish (2)  Dutch (2)  Italian (1)  Hebrew (1)  All (42)
Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
Only after I finished the book have I learned that the Royal Institution of Great Britain named it the best science book ever in 2006. I, for one, have no objection!

Reading this book in 2016 as a mathematician and a software engineer in my mid-career has an interesting appeal to me. Why? Because here is a great author, and a chemist by trade and formal education, writing in his 50s, telling not only fantastic personal stories, but also weaving a scientific / technical narrative that gets a life of its own, if I may say so. I'm so much used to reading and creating analogies between real life and computing technology that Levi's writing feels very fresh and enjoyable, only difference being the use of chemistry jargon, instead of computing. Of course, I don't know many great authors from the field of computing who survived the horrible Auschwitz concentration camp.

The power of those stories are difficult to describe in a few sentences: Most of them start very ordinary and quickly develop and mysterious surprises that draw you quickly into mind of the author. Some of them read like detective stories, whereas some of them force you to face the tragedies that simple, ordinary people underwent.

One of the aspects I've enjoyed most is how Levi view chemistry and its relation to life, as well as his relationship with the field, from his university freshman years when he was an idealist student, viewing chemistry as a source of truth and wisdom, to the times he worked as customer service consultant for a big company, visiting big customers to explain products and try to sell them. His description of himself as an old chemist entering the laboratory again after many years is unforgettable! A particular set of professionals will understand what I mean.

I enjoyed the book a lot, not only during its fun, scientific, 'nerdy' and 'geek' parts, but also the difficult parts where Levi relates to his Auschwitz in the most surprising and agonizing ways.

This book motivated me very much to read Levi's other works, and I can happily recommend it: You will witness the smart smile of a man who had more than his share of life and knew how to convey some of it using the chemistry of language, as well as the language of chemistry. ( )
1 vote EmreSevinc | Nov 6, 2016 |
Levi was a trained chemist and well experienced in his field when he wrote this book in 1975. The elemental chapters delve into his family's history, anecdotes from working with various elements, how his knowledge helped him survive Auschwitz, etc. As a whole this has to be considered fictional, not straight memoir, and he includes two short stories as well. The central theme is the universality of physical matter, how we are connected to each other and to all the world in this inescapable way. Quite a unique work and unique read, though I felt distanced at times from the technical narrative. I could, however, sense the emotion and grim irony at play here. I will read more of him. Upon his apparent suicide in 1987, Elie Wiesel said "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz 40 years later". ( )
  JamesMScott | Oct 18, 2016 |
Thomas Mann began his tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers, with this sentence: "Very deep is the well of the past." Primo Levi's memoir, The Periodic Table, demonstrates this metaphor in a much smaller, compact space. The lives of Levi and his Piedmont ancestors are explored through stories that illuminate the nature of the past and the source of those people's and our own humanity. This is done through vignettes that demonstrate Levi's love of chemistry and literature, his relations and relationships, while exploring his own attitude and thoughts.

Some of his thoughts are about reading and its meaning for his life. This is a topic that I especially love to explore and learn about; I will take it up in this introductory commentary on his memoir. His reading is based on his love for great literature particularly his appreciation for the writings of Thomas Mann, whom he holds in the highest esteem.
Early in the narrative during his sojourn as a chemistry student he meets Rita, a fellow student, and is attracted to her although, due to his shyness, he does not know how to approach her. He reaches a point where "I thought myself condemned to a perpetual masculine solitude, denied a woman's smile forever". Yet one day he found beside her, peeking out of her bag, a book. It was The Magic Mountain. He relates, "it was my sustenance during those months, the timeless story of Hans Castorp in enchanted exile on the magic mountain. I asked Rita about it, on tenterhooks to hear her opinion, as if I had written the book: and soon enough I had to realize that she was reading the novel in an entirely different way. As a novel, in fact: she was very interested in finding out exactly how far Hans would go with Madame Chauchat, and mercilessly skipped the fascinating (for me) political, theological, and metaphysical discussions between the humanist Settembrini and the Jewish Jesuit Naphtha." (p 38)
We all may have had a similar experience more than once: finding someone (whether drawn to them by Eros or not) reading a book we love, but not reading the same book.

Levi's love for Mann's writing also provided him solace while working on a demanding project during the war. He was sequestered in a laboratory next to a nickel mine and forced to work long hours. He dared not venture far from the mine, so "Sometimes I stayed in the lab past quitting time or went back there after dinner to study, or to meditate on the problem of nickel. At other times I shut myself in to read Mann's Joseph stories in my monastic cell in the submarine. On nights when the moon was up I often took long solitary walks through the wild countryside around the mine". (p 79)
One can picture Levi pondering while walking by the light of the Tuscan moon finding comfort as did Jacob in Mann's novel when he walked in the moonlight. It is the moonlight with its "magically ambiguous precision" that mirrored for Jacob the way the traditions of the children and grandchildren of Abraham are "spun out over generations and solidified as a chronicle only much later--". ("The Tales of Jacob")

Throughout his memoir Primo Levi shares other literature and experiences as he narrates the lives of his friends, family, and ancestors. Just as he is inspired by reading Thomas Mann and the moonlight that inspired Jacob so many centuries ago he is imbued with the life of the people around him. Yes, The Periodic Table is deep, and one wonders at the lives narrated by this brilliant Jewish Italian chemist and humanist. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jun 14, 2016 |
Primo libro di Levi, avvicinato perche' spaventato dal suo piu' famoso. Cosi', tanto per tentare l'approccio.

Il libro e' netto e inerte, come alcuni viali milanesi la mattina presto. Mi rimanda la noia della mediocrità, del caffelatte, dei cappotti lisi.
Ma nonostante questo, in quei giorni nebbiosi e grigi, c'e' un uomo che ha visto cose che noi mortali ce le sogniamo solo nei nostri peggiori incubi e che conduce una vita banale, di lavoratore in una fabbrica, e cerca di espellere sostanze da vernici raggrumate, e registra le sue attivita' con correttezza e imparzialita'.
E' questa distanza apparente dalle emozioni della lingua scritta che piu' di altre cose mi colpisce. L'Uomo ha sofferto, e' stato distante, e' stato allontanato, ha strappato la sua vita futura nei posti più lontani da Dio che la nostra civilta' serbi in memoria: e nonostante tutto non è ricco, e' famoso ma di una fama non appariscente, prende uno stipendio e probabilmente accantona una liquidazione, nel suo quotidiano svolge una attivita' che gia' al suo nominarsi fa arretrare.
Eppure attraverso quegli occhi sono passate immagini indicibili; attraverso quelle orecchie e quella pelle sono trasmigrati suoni e climi non di questa terra. Quell'uomo ha visto un inferno e parla di vanadio, oro e carbonio.
Ancora non mi capacito, e leggo affascinato le sue storie sull'autobus. ( )
  bobparr | Dec 14, 2014 |
21 chapters, each with the title of an element of the periodic table. As he says in the final chapter, 'this is not a chemical treatise'. He tells us about his life using the element as a metaphor for that period. The early chapters when we learn how he became interested in chemistry are interesting. These chapters have the energy and optimism of youth, although they were written in his old age. I found the information and the stories in these early chapters engaging and interesting. The chapter Cerium is the only one from his time in Auschwitz, that is covered thoroughly in 'If I was a Man', although there is an unexpected encounter with this time again in Vanadium, when he comes across a German officer he met in Auschwitz. The Silver chapter had me enthralled, what could be causing the problem with the x-ray paper, he is an excellent story teller. In Phosphorus in 1942 we feel the war, we are also wrapped up in chemical analysis to find an injection to cure diabetes but we are also thinking about love and what might have been. The stories unfold chronologically but also stand alone and some I enjoyed more than others. ( )
  Tifi | Jul 11, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Primo Leviprimary authorall editionscalculated
Riu, XavierTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rosenthal, RaymondTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Ibergekumene zoress is gut zu derzajln.
Überstandene Leiden lassen sich gut erzählen.
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There are the so-called inert gases in the air we breathe.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0805210415, Paperback)

Writer Primo Levi (1919-1987), an Italian Jew, did not come to the wide attention of the English-reading audience until the last years of his life. A survivor of the Holocaust and imprisonment in Auschwitz, Levi is considered to be one of the century's most compelling voices, and The Periodic Table is his most famous book. Springboarding from his training as a chemist, Levi uses the elements as metaphors to create a cycle of linked, somewhat autobiographical tales, including stories of the Piedmontese Jewish community he came from, and of his response to the Holocaust.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:07 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

One of Italy's leading men of letters, a chemist by profession, writes about incidents in his life in which one or another of the elements figured in such a way as to become a personal preoccupation.

(summary from another edition)

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