Review of The Periodic Table - by Primo Levi: an Inspirational Book
You Never Know What Treasures You Might Find on a Second-Hand Book Shelf
I picked up The Periodic Table by Primo Levi out of curiosity, just to see what it was about. It was on a bookshelf in my doctor's surgery, where people bring in their unwanted second-hand books to raise funds for the Patients' Group. The cover and brief synopsis looked interesting, so I started reading the first few pages and was immediately spellbound.
I had to buy it there and then.
This is My Rather Aged Paperback Copy of The Periodic Table
Here's My Personal Review:
The Periodic Table by Primo Levy is a modern classic to delight anyone interested in science, philosophy and human nature
Did you know that this book was actually short-listed on 19 October 2006 by The Royal Institution in London as the Best Science Book Ever Written? Imagine how exceptional this was. I only found that out some time after I had read the book.
However, I'm not sure that I agree with that short-listing, bearing in mind that it is not a scientific treatise - far from it - 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. I can't see how that could make it "the best science book ever", even though I agree that it is a very interesting, well-written and unusual book. I feel that, although science does of course come into it, the main category would be autobiographical rather than scientific.
Science was not one of my favorite subjects at school, and I don't think I even knew about the Periodic Table until I looked it up on the internet after I had started reading the book. Good, so I learned something new and I was fascinated by this intellectual's life in Italy during the War.
For me it shed some light on a hitherto unknown area of recent history. For younger readers, the history would not be considered so recent, bearing in mind it was three-quarters of a century ago, but I am from that generation who were alive, albeit children, in the 1940's.
To Save You Looking it up Here's a Definition of The Periodic Table in Chemistry
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)."
Difficult Life Circumstances
As an Italian Jew working throughout the war, mainly in Italy, his homeland, Primo Levy suffered great mental hardship.
In this autobiographical book, each chapter is a short story and reflection on his life, and, by a clever device, also refers to one of the chemical elements in the Periodic Table.
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.
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.
There is nothing superfluous here, and everything this book contains is essential.
His use of language is emotive and perceptive, marking him as a poet, among his other attributes. The quality of his writing is such that his book has been published very widely, in many different languages.
I recently gave a copy of The Periodic Table to my adult grandsons as a present, because they are interested in science, history and philosophy, and I felt they would enjoy it. They found it thought-provoking, and a subject for family discussion afterwards, throwing light on a personal experience of the war which they had not previously considered.
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More About the Author
- Primo Levi's Last Moments | Boston Review
Primo Levi's Last Moments from Boston Review.
- Quotes by the author from Goodreads.com
There are some nice quotes here
- Article about Primo Levi by The Guardian in June 2008
A brief summary and a quote
Lest we Forget His Background:
Primo Levi was not only a chemical scientist, but a philosopher writer too
Here are some sobering facts:
- 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
Below Is 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.
Al Filreis Talks About Primo Levi's The Periodic Table at KWH - He Talks Movingly About the Chapter Called "Iron"
© 2010 Diana Grant