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Review of The Periodic Table - by Primo Levi: an Inspirational Book

Updated on June 2, 2018
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

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

I love the cover design showing the actual Periodic Table in chemistry
I love the cover design showing the actual Periodic Table in chemistry | Source

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.

Brief Synopsis

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.

Take This Poll - How Would You Rate The Periodic Table by Primo Levi?

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

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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

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    • Gloriousconfusion profile imageAUTHOR

      Diana Grant 

      9 months ago from United Kingdom

      I read quite a lot of books by foreign feeling is that only the best ones get translated into English because there wouldn't be much reason to translate second-rate books.

    • wpcooper profile image

      Liam Finnegan 

      9 months ago from Los Angeles

      Wow. This is actually the first time I've heard this book mentioned. I picked it up years ago and still haven't read it because in college one of my professors told me that Sharon Olds was influenced by him and she was one of my favorite poets. I still have a copy of the book and have perused it occasionally and eventually will get around to reading it.

      I'm glad I came by this post.

    • RTalloni profile image


      10 months ago from the short journey

      The would be, at the very least, an interesting read.

    • Gloriousconfusion profile imageAUTHOR

      Diana Grant 

      4 years ago from United Kingdom

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

    • profile image


      4 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 imageAUTHOR

      Diana Grant 

      5 years ago from United Kingdom

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

    • profile image


      5 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 

      5 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 imageAUTHOR

      Diana Grant 

      5 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


      5 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 imageAUTHOR

      Diana Grant 

      6 years ago from United Kingdom

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

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Your lens reaches my heart! Thank you!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great resources on books

    • profile image


      8 years ago

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


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