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The Periodic Table - by Primo Levi: an Inspirational Book

Updated on November 7, 2014
Gloriousconfusion profile image

I've always been a keen reader and have so many books that I couldn't hope to read them all in my lifetime. I love being surrounded by them

Front cover of The Periodic Table
Front cover of The Periodic Table | Source

Review of The Periodic Table - a modern classic to delight anyone interested in Science, Philosophy and Human Nature

Did you know that Primo Levy's book The Periodic Table was shortlisted by The Royal Institution in London as the Best Science Book Ever Written?

I only found that out some time after I had read the book.

Imagine how exceptional this was, bearing in mind that it is not a scientific treatise - far from it - and that it depicts a few years in the life of Primo Levy, who was an industrial chemist, and who, as an Italian Jew in Mussolini's Italy during World II, was incarcerated for a year in Auschwitz..

In this autobiographical book, each chapter is a reflection on Primo Levi's life, and, by a clever device, also refers to one of the elements in the Periodic Table.

As an Italian Jew working throughout the War, mainly in Italy, Primo Levy's life was very difficult. Some Italians helped him to continue his analytical work, but eventually he ended up being deported to Auschwitz where he survived for a year. When you think that six million Jews and a horrific number of other people perished in the German concentration camps, this was an achievement in itself. The horrors he witnessed there shaped his writing and thoughts for the rest of his life.

Primo Levi was a poet and philosopher, as well as being an industrial chemist.

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi - The Periodic Table refers to various chemical elements and also points in Primo Levi's own life

The Periodic Table
The Periodic Table

This is a short book by today-standards, only 232 pages, but each page a gem of observation and wry comment by a man who suffered the hardships of being a Jew in Mussolini's Fascist Italy, suffering imprisonment in Auschwitz for a year, and emerging a changed man, with the wisdom of having seen so much suffering and being a survivor.


Primo Levi's Books Have Been Published in Many Languages

What is the Periodic Table?

I quote from Wikipedia: "The periodic table is a tabular display of the chemical elements, organized on the basis of their atomic numbers, electron configurations, and recurring chemical properties. Elements are presented in order of increasing atomic number (number of protons)."

The Periodic Table is a collection of short stories, mostly episodes from Primo Levy's life before and after his internment in Auschwitz, each tale connected to one of the chemical elements.

The date that Members of The Royal Institution in London shortlisted The Periodic Table for the best science book ever written was 19 October 2006.

There is nothing superfluous here, everything this book contains is essential

How Would You Rate The Periodic Table by Primo Levi? - Add your weight to this poll I'm very curious to know what other people thought about this book.

On a scale of 1-7, what did you REALLY think?

See results

Here's an Excerpt from The Periodic Table

He makes ordinary things seem anything but ordinary


"...better not to do than to do, better to meditate than to act, better his astrophysics, the threshold of the Unknowable, than my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions and small futile mysteries. I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is almost he same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad's switch points; the chemist's trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist's trade."

- Primo Levi (The Periodic Table)

A Memorable quote by Primo Levi:

"... there is trouble in store for anyone who

surrenders to the temptation of mistaking

an elegant hypothesis for a certainty:

the readers of detective stories

know this quite well"

Primo Levi was not only a Chemical Scientist, but a Philosopher and Writer too

Lest we forget his background -

Here is a sobering fact:

Primo Levi had a number tattooed

on his arm at Auschwitz

He never had the tattoo removed

and that number was engraved

on his headstone

You Can Buy a Periodic Table Poster on AllPosters - They have various Periodic Table designs, but I like this one best

Al Filreis talks about Primo Levi's The Periodic Table at KWH - he talks movingly about the Chapter called "Iron"

A Video about a chapter in The Periodic Table by Primo Levi on YouTube - Iron

This "Iron" refers to a man of iron, a Jewish man who is brave enough to resist the Italian fascists and loses his life because of his strength of character.

And at the same time it refers to the chemical element Iron.

The Calculator: "I'm Counting on You"

Here's some mathematical humor - You Can Get this Calculator Design "I'm Counting on You" on a T-Shirt on Zazzle.

The wording can be personalized or even removed by you, and you can get the same design on a mug, a button, a bumper sticker, or even a card

I'm Counting on You!

by GloriousConfusion

See more of my designs in my Zazzle Store: Glorious Confusion

What Are You Thinking at This Very Minute? - Share it here on my Guestbook - I love to hear from people

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    • Gloriousconfusion profile image

      Diana Grant 3 years ago from United Kingdom

      @burntchestnut: I'm sure you'd enjoy it

    • profile image

      burntchestnut 3 years ago

      I haven't read this book, but based on the title, I probably never would have picked it up. It sounds quite interesting, now that I've read your review. I remember a huge periodic table poster hanging on the wall of one of my science classes in high school (in the 1970s).

    • Gloriousconfusion profile image

      Diana Grant 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      @Ruthi: I.m sure you'll find it worthwhile

    • profile image

      Ruthi 4 years ago

      From your review of the book, it appears I should add "The Periodic Table" to my reading list. No doubt I will find the autobiographical factor of Primo Levi's life quite interesting, I may even add a bit of scientific knowledge to my brain!

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 4 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      I had not heard of Primo Levi or his book. It doesn't sound like a fun summer read, but I really like the concept of relating things in his life to the periodic table, thanks for explaining what this book is about!

    • Gloriousconfusion profile image

      Diana Grant 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      @deforst: I'm so glad - I gave it to my grandson to read as well, as he finds that sort of thing interesting, like you

    • deforst profile image

      deforst 4 years ago

      Thank you for introducing me to Primo Levi, I love books about and by scientists so this is definitely going on my must read list!

    • Gloriousconfusion profile image

      Diana Grant 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      @CreativeGal: That's such a lovely thing to say - thank you

    • profile image

      CreativeGal 5 years ago

      Your lens reaches my heart! Thank you!

    • profile image

      wecomparebooks 5 years ago

      Great resources on books

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Thanks for the link to my blog! ( I've been getting a lot of traffic from here.