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The Periodic Table (1975)

by Primo Levi

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,314592,785 (4.15)150
The Periodic Table is largely a memoir of the years before and after Primo Levi's transportation from his native Italy to Auschwitz as an anti-Facist partisan and a Jew.   It recounts, in clear, precise, unfailingly beautiful prose, the story of the Piedmontese Jewish community from which Levi came, of his years as a student and young chemist at the inception of the Second World War, and of his investigations into the nature of the material world. As such, it provides crucial links and backgrounds, both personal and intellectual, in the tremendous project of remembrance that is Levi's gift to posterity. But far from being a prologue to his experience of the Holocaust, Levi's masterpiece represents his most impassioned response to the events that engulfed him.   The Periodic Table celebrates the pleasures of love and friendship and the search for meaning, and stands as a monument to those things in us that are capable of resisting and enduring in the face of tyranny.… (more)
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» See also 150 mentions

English (48)  Italian (4)  Dutch (3)  Spanish (2)  Hebrew (1)  Danish (1)  All languages (59)
Showing 1-5 of 48 (next | show all)
Primo Levi is a writer that I've heard about for many years but never consciously read...I had some vague idea that he was a Nobel prize winner but it turned out that he had been nominated ...but apparently not awarded a Nobel Prize. The title indicated that the book was going to be about chemistry and I knew that Primo Levi was a chemist but as I started on the book it became obvious to me that it was more about Primo Lev i the Jew, and Primo Levi the Auschwitz survivor and .....much less emphasised.....Primp Levi the industrial chemis,t working in a lab. It's put together as a series of essays with some nominal or seminal connection with one of the elements. There appears to be no "Periodic" table connection to his selection of elements and he only covers 21 out of approximately 118 elements so, in a sense, the selection of elements is rather arbitrary.
However, having spent a good portion of my student days in laboratories...not all that different from the ones that Primo describes: ...."in the course of systematic analysis, conscientiously let loose into the air a good dose of hydrochloric acid and ammonia, so that a dense, hoary mist of ammonium chloride stagnated permanently in the lab".....And his observation that "it didn't seem fair that the world should know everything about how the doctor, prostitute, sailor assassin, countess, ancient Roman conspirator and Polynesian lives and know nothing about we, who transform matter, live".....He wanted "to tell the stories of the solitary chemist, unarmed and on foot....". He's right....I don't think, anywhere else, have I ever read about the experience of being in and working in a laboratory. (Maybe a little....very little in "The double Helix" by James Watson and maybe a little....very little in "The two cultures" by CP Snow.....but Levi manages to evoke the atmosphere of the laboratory extraordinarily well).
The powerful underlying theme of his Jewishness in Nazi Italy is a constant throughout...even long after the war when he gets a letter from Muller about Vanadium. I guess, that sort of treatment and experience leaves indelible scars. It's interesting how the two strands of his themes are interwoven......the analytical chemistry (and the detective work involved with that) with his Jewishness and the loneliness and ostracism that this brought. I guess, in one sense, his knowledge of chemistry was what singled him out for preferential treatment at Auschwitz....and probably preserved his life. (I recall reading "Man's search for meaning" by Victor Frankl....and it seemed to me that his status and knowledge as a Doctor...likewise gave him preferential treatment and probably preserved his life).
Maybe....Levi is a bit weak with his biochemistry in his story about carbon....... but he admits his word picture of photosynthesis is watered down and rather mysterious ....but then the book was first published in 1975 and a lot has been learned since then. And, to give him his due, he makes no claims about biochemistry. His story is that of the analytical chemist.
Oh, I did learn, to my surprise, that argon is thirty times more abundant than carbon dioxide in the air. ....and if all of humanity.....all 250 million tons of us were spread over the surface of the world....the thickness would be around sixteen thousandths of a millimetre. ...."our very presence on the earth becomes laughable in geometric terms."
I really enjoyed the book and happy to give it five stars. ( )
  booktsunami | Aug 15, 2020 |
A really interesting and enjoyable read. I thought it was going to be about the Periodic Table of elements, but no, it was about his life, family, work as a chemist ... He named the chapters after elements when that element occured in his life. Primo has a good turn of phrase, I had my highlighter out often.
"Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike."
"... the flame turned livid and there was a much different smell, metallic, garlicky, inorganic, indeed contra-organic: a chemist without a nose is in for trouble."
There is science and there are elements discussed, but in laymans terms, the book is more his progress through life, people he met, obstacles he overcame.
Well written. ( )
  GeoffSC | Jul 25, 2020 |
As a concept The Periodic Table may come across as lofty or even obtuse. Upon reading there is a depth that overwhelms these trite notions of judgement. Levi's wit, candor, existential musings, and heartache are all rendered in a constellation of essays that define strict genre categorization. Levi writes that all writing is autobiography, and he's mapped out himself in this book in a way that is bare and buried, much like the elements that guide the reader through his life and memories.
  b.masonjudy | Apr 3, 2020 |
A collection of ancedotes making up a potted biography. Yes, each is attached to a chemical element.

Kinda unique, but not really great. Told me one thing though: Even though I have a chemistry degree, I just don't connect to chemistry.

( )
  GirlMeetsTractor | Mar 22, 2020 |
Do yourself a favor and skip the first chapter. It's a mostly boring, entirely disposable catalog of people and minor details without much narrative or depth. You won't be missing anything, and that way you might not put down what is an otherwise pleasant read. There are a couple slow or dry chapters, but overall the writing is comfortable and well enough done that it makes me want to read his other (more widely acclaimed) material. ( )
  reg_lt | Feb 7, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 48 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Levi, Primoprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ascherson, NealIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
De Matteis-Vogels, FridaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Riu, XavierTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rosenthal, RaymondTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roth, PhilipIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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There are the so-called inert gases in the air we breathe.
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The Periodic Table is largely a memoir of the years before and after Primo Levi's transportation from his native Italy to Auschwitz as an anti-Facist partisan and a Jew.   It recounts, in clear, precise, unfailingly beautiful prose, the story of the Piedmontese Jewish community from which Levi came, of his years as a student and young chemist at the inception of the Second World War, and of his investigations into the nature of the material world. As such, it provides crucial links and backgrounds, both personal and intellectual, in the tremendous project of remembrance that is Levi's gift to posterity. But far from being a prologue to his experience of the Holocaust, Levi's masterpiece represents his most impassioned response to the events that engulfed him.   The Periodic Table celebrates the pleasures of love and friendship and the search for meaning, and stands as a monument to those things in us that are capable of resisting and enduring in the face of tyranny.

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Azoto, carbonio, idrogeno, oro, arsenico... Sono ventuno gli elementi chimici che dànno il titolo ai racconti di questo libro, e ventuno i capitoli di un'autobiografia che per affinità e accostamenti corre sul filo di una storia personale e collettiva, affondando le radici nell'oscura qualità della materia, raccontando le storie di un mestiere «che è poi un caso particolare, una versione piú strenua del mestiere di vivere». È questo il gigantesco minuscolo gioco che lega osservazione, memoria, scrittura: ne esce ricostruita la vicenda di una formazione maturata negli anni del fascismo, poi nelle drammatiche vicende della guerra: di chi, partendo dalla concretezza del lavoro, impara a capire le cose e gli uomini, a prendere posizione, a misurarsi con ironia e autoironia. Un De rerum natura metafora dell'esistenza, in cui emergono, nel volgersi del racconto, stranezze, fallimenti e riuscite imprevedibili.
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Penguin Australia

3 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141185147, 0141399449, 0241956811

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