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4.3 out of 5 stars49
4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 21 June 2008
I want to defend this book from a couple of unfair reviews. Not that the great Primo Levi should need me, but The Periodic Table is one of the books I have most enjoyed reading in the past couple of years and so I don't want people to get the wrong impression of what it is.

For most of his working life, Levi was a professional chemist who also wrote on the side. Almost every chapter is a story from his remarkable life (two chapters are fiction). Each chapter has a chemical element for its title and that element appears somehow in the story, either literally or metaphorically. In the first chapter Primo Levi tells something of the history of his family: Jews in southern France, Venice and lastly in the city of Turin, where Levi grew up (except during the war he lived in the same apartment for his whole life). The first chapter is slightly harder going than the rest of the book (it has interesting information about some Hebrew names and how they were twisted via French into the local Piedmontese dialect), and I think that's where some readers got stuck -- too bad, because once you get further it's a nice balance to the rest. Then there are stories about his interest in chemistry as a child, mixing things up and causing explosions, his university education, how Fascism started to become a factor in his life as a young man, and then the story of how as a captured anti-fascist fighter he, amazingly, got himself sent to Auschwitz as a Jew in order to avoid being shot by the Fascists as a 'traitor'. There is one Auschwitz chapter; then stories of Levi's return after the war to Turin, where he became the head of the chemistry department at a paint factory. He became an expert in the chemistry of varnishes, though the book doesn't mention it. Chemistry is not the most obvious raw material for a writer of Levi's calibre, that is what makes the book unique. He lays out how it crisscrossed the path of his life from the nineteen-thirties through to the eighties. Some of the incidents are exotic or dangerous, others are prosaic, but Levi's extraordinary power of observation, his eye for a curious detail, runs all the way through. You have to concentrate to make the most of this book, but it is worth the effort. And, by the end, you have learnt a little chemistry too.

Really, I cannot recommend The Periodic Table highly enough to do it justice. Raymond Rosenthal's translation is beautifully done; the English doesn't disturb the original. Translated Italian can easily become very turgid, but Rosenthal has avoided that. There is an introduction by Philip Roth in which he tells of meeting Primo Levi in the 1980s. I love this book. And for the price, what a deal.
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on 20 August 1999
A beautiful book, filled with a real fascination and amused respect for the intricacies of creation and the vagaries of humanity. Levi survived Auschwitz because of his knowledge of industrial chemistry, and here he takes 21 elements from the Periodic Table as starting points for fragments of autobiography and fiction. Touching and funny, and sometimes unutterably sad. Far, far more than "a good read on a train"!
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on 18 November 2003
In a largely autobiographical synthesis (fictional tales of mercury and lead are neatly slid into the melting-pot), Primo Levi assesses his life in terms of the chemical elements. And as Levi says, this story is not invented, and reality is always more complex than invention: less kempt, cruder, less rounded out.
Non-chemists have no fear. This is a wonderfully rich alloy of science and history, language and memory. Forget gold and iron: it was hard, grey, obscure vanadium that stood out like a thorn for the troubled, hopeful times in which we live. Vanadium’s is a story of the real world, where the armed exist and the honest and the unarmed clear the road for them, and where all men must later answer for mankind. Profound and life-affirming stuff indeed.
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on 27 June 2013
This is the second book I read after 'If this is a man' and 'The Truce' (and I would recommend reading them in that order). I love Levi's writing style - detached but not unemotional. This book is a somewhat strange mix - mostly autobiographical but with some fictional short stories in the middle - but you can't help but feel involved. I even started getting interested in Levi's work, which, given that I know nothing about chemistry whatsoever, can only be put down to his fantastic writing! The penultimate chapter where he accidentally comes into contact with a former chemist from Auschwitz is incredibly gripping. I can't wait to read more.
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on 23 October 2014
Italian writer Primo Levi (1919-1987) autobiographical story, told in 21 chapters, each named from a chemical element that plays some part in the story. This book has been named by the Royal Society as the best science book ever (probably an exaggeration, but it is a great book).

Levi was born into a Jewish Italian family. Despite his religion, he graduated with honors as chemist in 1941 at the time Italy was an ally of Nazi Germany in the Axis. Soon, though, he decided to join the partisans, was arrested, send to Auschwitz...Well, you learn more about what happened to him reading the book, but he did survive the war against many odds. Levi was obviously a very intelligent man, but after the war his career as a chemist (always in industry, never in academe) was far from stellar. After the war he started as a down market consultant in chemistry to small Italian firms, and would later languish many years in a mid size varnish factory before he retire to dedicate himself full time to writing. As much as he obviously liked chemistry, his true talent was in writing.

Some people find his writing style pretentious. I disagree, but I admit the first chapter, Argon (in which his Jewish ancestors who set themselves apart from the rest of the surrounding gentile community in Northern Italy are compared with the noble gas that does not interact with other elements), is a bit of a struggle. In that case, I suggest you start from later chapters that are more easy to read (you really don't need to follow the book chronologically). Except with Mercury, Lead, (the wonderful) Carbon and (the strange) Titanium, which are fantastical, the rest of the book is autobiographical, though I suspect that on some occasions he did embellish some details.

My favorites chapters are "Vanadium" (in which he relates his unexpected encounter two decades after the war with one German he met on Auschwitz), Nitrogen (how he was commissioned by a sleazy businessman to try to produce a key ingredient in lipsticks out of chicken manure), Arsenic (how he find a cobbler was trying to poison a business rival) and Cerium (surviving the concentration camps by trading stolen pieces of the metals for its use in flints). But almost all the book is very good.
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on 20 July 2011
This is a collection of essays which contain elements of biography, loosely linked by headings referring to elements in the Periodic Table. These are sometimes metaphorical, sometimes real. It is a book to be dipped into rather than read chronologically, but it needs concentration.

There are fascinating nuggets of Levi's own history, including both before and after his famous period in Auschwitz, and he tries to convey what his work as an industrial chemist was like. He made me want to understand more about chemistry, but most of all, I found that parts of this book stayed in my mind long after I finished reading it, particularly the piece about him contacting one of the German chemists, who had shown some small consideration of his comfort at Auschwitz, after the end of the war.

His style is unique - understated, full of echoes of what he doesnt say, but implies.
His intelligence, perception and modesty shine through the book.
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on 23 January 2011
As a student who's aspiring to study chemistry at uni, I was recommended to read this book by my chemistry teacher. I love historical books, and chemistry, and the mixture of the two made this book amazing. Such a creative way of putting everything together, that I think i'll be taking it to uni with me and reading it again and again,

A worthwhile read!
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on 11 April 2012
A wonderful book, no qualms in recommending it whatsoever.

I wish I culd say the same about this horrible edition which shoves the text into a small format using a hard-to-read typeface. For the price charged, this is pretty poor by Penguin.

I'd buy the standard edition and get a book you can actually read without having to buy your first pair of glasses.
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One of my regrets in life was that I never really got a grip on science. I dropped all science at 14 because I wasn't interested, I wasn't any good at them and because I could. I think the way they were taught was so boring.

This is a great shame because there is tremendous beauty and order in scientific discovery and good teachers are able to bring out the inherent fascination in the world. I bet that Primo Levi would have made a brilliant chemistry teacher.

I know about Primo Levi's dual career as writer of fiction and his work as an industrial chemist. I also know about his incarceration in and witness to the suffering in the Auschwitz concentration camp as an Italian Jew during the Second World War.

The period table touches on Auschwitz but covers a longer period of time. It is a series of short stories each of which is named after a chemical element. This become metaphors for situations in his life, points of departure or props in entirely fictional tales. I get the feeling that these chemical elements have definite personalities of their own. I enjoyed each story although the opening chapter, Argon, is a bit of a slog to get through.

I haven't read any other books by Primo Levi and suspect that this isn't his greatest work. It is a strange combination of autobiography and pure fiction. I am not always sure where one ends and the other begins.

Anyway, I still recommend anyone tries it out.
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on 2 December 2004
This books brings forth the literay genius of Levi, though the title says "periodic table", it has very little to with compelx chemistry. What he is alluding to through this title, is that there is a purpose,a plan, and order for events in life - as the order of elements found in the periodic table.
He is a master stroy teller, you can feel the passion, the joy and the pain, he takes you along with him in his narration, you can litearlly feel the emotions, while you read, wonderful flow of the language and full of human emotions.
In simple words, its a must to read.
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