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The Periodic Table

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4.20  ·  Rating details ·  10,618 ratings  ·  855 reviews
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi is an impassioned response to the Holocaust: Consisting of 21 short stories, each possessing the name of a chemical element, the collection tells of the author's experiences as a Jewish-Italian chemist before, during, and after Auschwitz in luminous, clear, and unfailingly beautiful prose. It has been named the best science book ever by the ...more
Paperback, 233 pages
Published April 4th 1995 by Schocken (first published 1975)
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Darkemeralds Well, it's not a book for everyone. I loved it--I was surprised by how much I loved it, in fact--but I think it's because I approached it a certain wa…moreWell, it's not a book for everyone. I loved it--I was surprised by how much I loved it, in fact--but I think it's because I approached it a certain way.

First, there IS a narrative structure, but it's very subtle. It's the life story of a man who survived the concentration camps of World War II, and I think it helps to know that going in.

Second, I found I could appreciate it just on the level of purely beautiful writing (and translation). The lightness and leanness of his prose and the freedom he felt in constructing his autobiography in this peculiar series of essays--it's clever, but it's more than that. It doesn't alienate the reader who is non-clever (at least, it didn't alienate me) because each little story is a story.

Third, each little story IS a story. I didn't struggle super hard to make big overarching sense of the whole thing. I found lots of humor and irony, even in the sections where he's actually in the concentration camp.

Finally, the book came recommended by someone who said she re-read parts of it over and over again--returned to it a lot--so I knew it was something I wouldn't fully absorb in a single reading. I was aware of taking only a fraction of it away with me in a first reading. I let myself be satisfied with the tiny bit I did "get", and it wouldn't surprise me if I opened the book back up again randomly from time to time. I had a favorite chapter, "Iron", which I found very moving, and which I felt I understood clearly.

Oh, and it helped me a lot to read portions of it aloud. Maybe that's just me. My attention span is terrible, and I find that reading aloud helps me focus, especially when the prose is so beautiful.

I don't know if this helps you, but writing it helped me! I'm glad you asked.(less)

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Petra-X
In an interweaving between the elements and stories, Primo Levi tells his life. But he chooses episodes to relate carefully and never discusses his children. At the end he tells us, that his writing was only ""partial and symbolic". The man who wrote so much and so tellingly of Auschwitz in If This Is a Man remains a mystery.

The greatest mystery of all, to me, was his death. At 67 he fell over the balustrade of the stairs down from the 3rd floor of the house he'd lived in all his life (except wh
...more
Rachel
Feb 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
You know how you read a sentence and copy it down because it's so good? In this book, I'd find a sentence, and go to copy it and realize it relied on the one before it, which relied on the one before that for its complete meaning. So I'd copy down whole paragraphs, whole pages, because Primo writes in integrated, seamless blocks of meaning. Which is enviable.

Other than that, I want to give Primo a big kiss, buy him a beer, and ride bikes with him in Italy.
Jim Fonseca
Jul 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Each chapter is named for an element; some chapters are autobiographical, some are essays, some are vignettes of people he knew and their careers in chemistry; two are short stories about metal prospecting and mining with hints of fantasy. Most are autobiographical and through these we learn a bit of his childhood; his boyish fascination with chemistry experiments which grew into his college education and career as a chemist; his puppy loves and courtship and his imprisonment in a labor camp dur ...more
Paul Bryant

Every suicide is like a nail bomb full of vicious questions and the questions don’t care where they land. Why didn’t somebody do something? – there’s one. Surely there must have been signs. Right there is a triple blow delivered to the bereaved partner and immediate family. They’re reeling from the event, then they have to conclude this depression, this malaise, was so acute it blotted out even thoughts of themselves in the suicide’s final minutes. And after that comes the unspoken accusations a
...more
Kinga
Aug 31, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: pub-1975
Chemistry as a metaphor for life. Blurb writers love phrases like that. They are short, succinct and intriguing. But how hard is it to write something that would deliver on such a promise?
I had never read anything quite like ‘The Periodic Table’. It more than delivered – it exceeded my expectations. The book is a beautiful marriage of life and science, perfectly accessible to a regular reader. The truth is that anything can be fascinating provided it’s explained by a person truly passionate abou
...more
Ted
There are so-called inert gases in the air we breathe. They bear curious Greek names of erudite derivation which mean "the New", "the Hidden", "the Inactive", and "the Alien".


Thus begins Primo Levi's book of a score or so mini-memoirs. Each of these is named for one of the elements, thus the name of the book. The elements used are in no particular order – not alphabetical, not by atomic number (the ordering of elements in the periodic table). They range from Argon (the first chapter) to Carbon (
...more
Ian
There was an occasion last year when I had to hang around for a few hours in a town about 40 miles from where I live – my car was in for repair. As is my wont, I spent the time in a bookshop, and eventually was there long enough to feel guilty about not buying anything. I’d heard of Primo Levi and of some of his books, so decided to settle on taking this one away.

I found this kind of wonderful. Mainly, it consists of snippets from the author’s life and especially his career as a chemist, with ea
...more
Steven Godin
I have to admit as I spent most of my science and chemistry lessons staring out the window daydreaming my knowledge of the Periodic Table sucks, Primo Levi has now changed all that. Using each element to fascinating effect in his own experiences, from the classrooms and studies of his youth through fascist Italy to his capture by the Nazi's and ultimate test of the human spirit to rally and remain mentally strong to survive to tell of the aftermath also. The linking of stories to eponymous eleme ...more
Paul
Dec 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
4.5 stars
This is a collection of short stories, twenty-one in all, each one named after an element of the periodic table. In the UK the Royal Institution has voted it the best science book ever. There is a variety of stories: some are very personal memoirs, a few are fictional, some look at industrial processes and there is a good deal about the nature of words. Sometimes Levi does describe a search for a particular element, but in others he uses the fundamentals of the element for comparative p
...more
Ian "Marvin" Graye
Apr 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
The Connotations of the Elements

All elements have been named in a more or less arbitrary manner: after people, places or mythological characters.

To those who named them, if not necessarily us, these names had metaphorical connotations. For non-scientists, this significance might be lost in the scientific haze that befuddles us.

One achievement of Primo Levi's novel is to revive the power of the metaphors.

Each element he has chosen represents a person, an experience or a story. Each chapter name
...more
David
Mar 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: chemistry, memoirs
This is a book of memoirs by Italian chemist, Primo Levi. On one level, the book is an autobiography. Each chapter has the name of an element of the periodic table, and the chapter relates some episode in Levi's life that has some relationship to that element.

On another level, the book is about the tragedy of the Holocaust. Primo Levi and his fellow chemists lived through the beginning of the war by pushing the war out of their minds. They saw the war for what it was; they had a fateful attitude
...more
Edward
This was a pleasant surprise: not at all the mournful account I had expected. The Periodic Table is Levi’s autobiography told thorough his work; an expression of his love for the chemists’ art and trade, and though the war and holocaust (being inseparable from his life) are part of the story, they not central to it (he wrote about these in more detail in other books, which I have not yet read).

I enjoyed Levi’s light, enthusiastic tone, his intimacy and passion, and the stories themselves, which
...more
Bettie
Janet Suzman introduces a major new dramatization of Primo Levi's stories about our human relationship with the chemical elements that make up our universe - a book the Royal Institution of Great Britain named 'the best science book ever'. She begins with a short feature about Levi's life and writing, featuring archive interviews with Levi himself.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07kp709



Episode 1/11: Vanadium: In the course of his work as a chemist in a paint factory in the 1960s, Primo Levi rec
...more
Greta G
 photo 8E6876C3-8DC8-4060-B69A-5D07DD6E5A6E.jpg

The Periodic Table consists of 21 stories and each story refers to one of the 21 chemical elements.
Chemistry was vital in Primo Levi's life. He not only worked as a chemist before and after the war, but it probably also saved him in Auschwitz, where he was selected for work in a laboratory.
Chemistry also gave him security, in a world in which he felt himself insecure.

The stories give an insight in Primo Levi's life history and in his work as a chemist. There are also a couple of fictional
...more
Parthiban Sekar
Jan 21, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

“In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But immaculate virtue does not exist either, or if it exists it is detestable.”
Ammara Abid
Jun 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Ingenious Write-up. Simply remarkable!
Jessica
Finally, an argument in favor of being forced to read books! I hated the beginning of this and fell asleep twice during the first chapter, so I never would've kept on going if I hadn't had to for school. But The Periodic Table got progressively better then finally peaked at the end, as is my personal preference for books. I cried for like twenty minutes after I finished this, though I'm not sure if that had to do more with Primo Levi or with my own lady hormones.

In any case, though it took me aw
...more
Michael Finocchiaro
After reading If This Is a Man • The Truce and The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levy, I was a little disappointed with The Periodic Table because I felt it was a bit uneven. Here, Primo Levy uses elements (Argon, Hydrogen, Zinc, Iron, etc) from the periodic table (he was a chemist professionally and this saved him at Auschwitz) to describe 21 stories related to his life before, during and after his imprisonment. Some are great stories and often have a great ironic sense of humor. Others, well, ...more
Joshua
Dec 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Primo Levy was a chemist, a poet, and a novelist--a man of luminous imagination and spirit, despite his forced descent into darkness as an Italian Jew during World War II. This book is a memoir, with each chapter named after an element culled from the periodic table.

In each chapter, Levy's awe for the alchemical power of the chemist shines through. But he has a poet's heart rather than a chemist's sterile exactitude. The opening chapter "Argon" describes how this element is much more common in
...more
Jamie
Nov 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I had to think for awhile to decide which adjective seemed to best sum up Primo Levi’s writings, and finally decided on “graceful.” His stories are perfectly formed, plotted out with an introduction to set the scene, exposition to fill out the narrative, and a clear conclusion. And yet, they never feel artificial or contrived; they flow smoothly, and it is easy to imagine him telling them to friends over a glass of wine at the neighborhood trattoria.

The stories start with events from his formati
...more
Nooilforpacifists
I had no idea what to expect. What I got exceeded any expectations--and my greatest expectations.

Levi, an Italian Jewish Chemist, managed to get a PhD and stay employed until the Italians initially toppled Mussolini's Fascist government, provoking a Nazi invasion that returned Italy to the Axis, albeit as an occupied territory. Levi and his friends took to the mountains to fight as partisans, but were inexperienced and caught almost immediately. Levi admitted he was a Jew and was transferred to
...more
K.D. Absolutely
May 24, 2012 rated it liked it
Recommended to K.D. by: 501 Must Read Books (Bloomsbury)
Shelves: holocaust, 501, stylish, drama
Primo Levi (1919-1987) was an Italian Jewish chemist who survived Hitler's Holocaust. This is my second time to read a book by him. I read his first novel Survival in Auschwitz (3 stars) last year and I feel in love with it so that I had to make sure that I have this book and If Not Now, When?. These seem to be his trilogy of memoirs directly recalling his experiences in the concentration camps.

This book is composed of short stories and annecdotes from before, during and after his life in Auschw
...more
Dhanaraj Rajan
From the Concluding Section of the Book:

"The reader, at this point, will have realized for some time now that this is not a chemical treatise: my presumption does not reach so far - 'ma voix est foible, et meme un peu profane.' Nor is it an autobiography, save in the partial and symbolic limits in which every piece of writing is autobiographical, indeed every human work; but it is in some fashion a history. It is - or would have liked to be - a micro-history......"

The point is made very clear by
...more
Nick
This is a collection of autobiographical snapshots bonded together by elements from the Periodic Table. Each chapter is closely, or loosely, centred around an element. There are also two fictional short stories, which took me by surprise. Levi, a chemist, writes fiction which is just a good as his non-fiction.

In "Nickel", Levi recounts his time working at a chemical plant near Turin, in Mussolini's Italy. He describes a small community during wartime, as he was pressured to extract more nickel f
...more
Markus
Apr 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
LE SYSTEME PERIODIQUE
By Primo Levi

The twenty-one chapters of this story, part autobiography, and partly fiction, are named after chemical elements of the Periodical Table in the world of chemistry.

Primo Levy was a Doctor in Chemistry and in this work he takes pleasure in telling a variety of short stories relating to professional adventures in his young life, as well as some witty and humorous fictional projections.

And finally some tragic memories of the time of heroic resistance to fascism, an
...more
Chaunceton Bird
Aug 24, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Based on its title and it having been named by the Royal Institution of Great Britain as "the best science book ever," I thought this would be a science book. But it's not. It is something of a memoir, told in short stories, about an Italian chemist (who happens to be Jewish) navigating the late 1930s and early to mid 1940s. Through each short story Mr. Levi brings to life one of the elements of the periodic table. It's an excellent, entertaining book.
Jan
Although the ‘Periodic Table’ is recognized by the Royal Institute of Britain as ‘the best science book ever written,’ it really not a science book. It’s a memoir, it is philosophy, and it is written by gentle soul. The book arrived with high praise from Bellow, Roth, Calvino and Eco.

It came 30 years after Primo Levi’s famous ‘If This is Man’ (or 'Survival in Auschwitz’ in the US) which was written in 1946, almost immediately after his 11 months in Auschwitz. He said he wrote it because he had a
...more
Jeremy
Feb 25, 2011 rated it really liked it
An odd-ball blend of autobiography and short fictions, organized around a motif that would be almost cute if Levi didn't approach everything in his life with somber, intelligent reflection. As odd as it sounds, this is exactly the sort of writing I would expect from a life-long chemist. Even when he waxes heavy on entomological minutia, (something which I think he gets from his fellow Italian, Vico), this is all clearly the product of a highly analytical mind. He barely touches on what happened ...more
Tim Pendry
Primo Levi may or may not have committed suicide in 1987 and it is all too convenient for myth-makers to say, as Elie Wiesel did, that Levi had died at Auschwitz forty years earlier.

However, there is one section of this book - Vanadium - where one understands the possibility of existential despair for Levi, his exchange with a German who was 'on the other side' at Auschwitz.

It is not that the German was wholly obtuse and certainly the man knows that bad things were done. By all 'conventional' st
...more
Ademption
INSTRUCTIONS (for making this one of the best books you've ever read):

1. Skip the first chapter. Read the rest in its entirety. The chapters aren't connected. Chapter One is didactic and uncharacteristic of the book.

2. Read Chapter One, a discourse on Piedmontese, which is probably only interesting to people of the Piedmont.


YIELD: One of the best books ever.
...more
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1,149 followers
Primo Michele Levi (Italian: [ˈpriːmo ˈlɛːvi]) was a chemist and writer, the author of books, novels, short stories, essays, and poems. His unique 1975 work, The Periodic Table, linked to qualities of the elements, was named by the Royal Institution of Great Britain as the best science book ever written.

Levi spent eleven months imprisoned at Monowitz, one of the three main camps in the Auschwitz c
...more

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