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The Periodic Table (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 22 Feb 2001
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"I immersed myself in "The Periodic Table" gladly and gratefully. There is nothing superfluous here, everything this book contains is essential. It is wonderful pure, and beautifully translated...I was deeply impressed." -Saul Bellow "The best introduction to the psychological world of one of the most important and gifted writers of our time."-Italo Calvino "A work of healing, of tranquil, even buoyant imagination." -"The New York Times Book Review" "Brilliant, grave and oddly sunny; certainly a masterpiece." -"Los Angeles Times" "Every chapter is full of surprises, insights, high humor, and language that often rises to poetry." -"The New Yorker" "One of the most important Italian writers." -Umberto Eco With a new Introduction by Neal Ascherson
'A book it is necessary to read' - Saul Bellow. In these haunting reflections, Primo Levi, a chemist by training, takes the elements of the periodic table as his starting point and inspiration. Written with understated eleoquence and shot through with deep humanity, Levi ranges from young love to political savagery in this, one of his most famous works.See all Product description
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Voted as the best science book ever written in I believe 2006 by the Royal Institution, it may seem slightly weird that this could be classified as such, although when you think about it without chemical reactions there would be no us, and the planet would be just another dead rock orbiting the sun. So what we end up with here is a series of pieces that do have direct bearings on the headings, or sometimes in a more allegorical or prosaic way.
We thus follow Levi through this as he gives us a piece about his family history and name changes, to growing up, living under Fascist rule and working, onto his partisan activities and incarceration, and then life after the war as Europe started to rebuild itself.
There is some wry humour here and at times it pays to look at the translator’s footnotes as some items here are wordplays on names which obviously you will miss reading this in English. Making for an enjoyable and thoughtful read this is something that can give you a lot to ponder upon and shows up life as it is, rather than something seen through rose tinted glasses.
While I enjoyed the book, I was expecting there to be more science content. Perhaps because of the title and that it has been described as one of the important science books. However, I had previously listened to a serialisation of the book on Radio4, so I should have expected it largely to consist of a series of anecdotes from the authors life as an industrial chemist.
I found it quite easy to read, thought it well translated and enjoyed the simple prose. My favourite chapter was the penultimate entitled 'Vanadium'. The writer describes how a detective process to determine the cause of a faulty batch of paint led to the author finding a Doctor Muller who he had last seen 20 years ago at an Auschwitz laboratory. I liked the description of the investigation and the seamless but subtle link to the past.
The last chapter entitled carbon seemed rather pretentious to me and although others have enjoyed it, it was one of my least favourites.
I am glad to have read the book, but I think some readers might well be surprised by the very high rating many have given it here.
Here are some of my favourites:
In the brief instants of the flight of the instinct of self-preservation made us take a leap backward. Emilioi said, "I thought it would make more noise."
"and nobody knows why anymore"
"It seemed to me that I had won a small but decisive battle against the darkness, the emptiness, and the hostile years that lay ahead."
Cool dispassionate observation of human nature in extremis, this book is a must-read for all generations and somehow, in spite of the terrible backdrop it manages to convey a certain wry humour and to be strangely uplifting.
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