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The Periodic Table Hardcover – Oct 1 1996

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 241 pages
  • Publisher: Everyman's Library; Reissue edition (Oct. 1 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679444637
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679444633
  • Product Dimensions: 21 x 2.3 x 21.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 386 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #30,380 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

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Writer Primo Levi (1919-1987), an Italian Jew, did not come to the wide attention of the English-reading audience until the last years of his life. A survivor of the Holocaust and imprisonment in Auschwitz, Levi is considered to be one of the century's most compelling voices, and The Periodic Table is his most famous book. Springboarding from his training as a chemist, Levi uses the elements as metaphors to create a cycle of linked, somewhat autobiographical tales, including stories of the Piedmontese Jewish community he came from, and of his response to the Holocaust.


“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

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Inside This Book

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Customer Reviews

4.9 out of 5 stars
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Most helpful customer reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Rebekah Sue Carolla on March 7 2003
Format: Paperback
This is the first book by Primo Levi that I've read. The man was a brilliant author.
"The Periodic Table" cleverly takes the elements that are part of our everyday lives and uses each to illustrate a story, most of which are his view point of 1940s Italy, before or after he was sent to Auschwitz. (Very little of this book has to do with the actual death camp, though its impressions are evident.) Levi, a chemist, tells autobiographical tales of his desire to make people see in the logical way that chemists see the world.
The way that Levi weaves words might be more expected from a poet than from a scientist. Above all, however, Levi was an observer of both elements and of human nature. I'm only sorry that I discovered him after he died; I might have written to tell him how much I enjoyed his book. My mother, a scientist, is emotionally unable to read any more books about the Holocaust; but as this book doesn't talk about the horrors of the camps but about the era, why, I think I'll lend it to her.
( wishlist purchase)
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Nicholas Homer on June 1 2004
Format: Paperback
I started this book expecting a story of how a Jew survived the Holocaust in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. I thought that I'd read about tragedy and misfortune, but I didn't get what I expected.
What I got was a tale of subtle defiance and quiet resiliency to the war that looms in the background of the book. The author hints at the drama and struggle of the war through his many short vignettes--each related to an element from the Periodic Table--but he is never overcome by it, remaining distant from the events, submitting helplessly to the way things were, but looking brightly toward the future.
This was altogether a very interesting book. Strangely inspiring, aloof but aware, it provided me a view of the second world war that I never would have imagined.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on Sept. 16 1998
Format: Paperback
This book, like all truly great books, can be viewed in many ways. A possible, rewarding one is to view it as the story of an education. Each chapter, named after the periodic table of the elements, tells about the acquisition of an important piece of the mosaic that was Primo Levi.There is the discovery of the "essential language" of science, as opposed to the void rethoric of fascism, the discovery of courage, in the chapter named "Iron", of rigor, in the "potassium". But this is not a didactical book. This is a series of wonderful tales, of exquisite poetry and of life, true life. I didn't read more than five books comparable to this one.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Michael Wischmeyer on Sept. 6 2002
Format: Paperback
Primo Levi was a gifted writer that happened to practice chemistry. In these short memoirs he tells the story of a chemist, a chemist that is living in Mussolini's Italy, a chemist that is Jewish and survived Auschwitz. Levi has written of Auschwitz previously and only a single chapter in "The Periodic Table" directly discusses Auschwitz.
To many readers the career of a chemist might seem as exciting as the career of an accountant or a tax attorney, essential to society, but better left to someone else. It hardly seems the subject for a remarkable literary work.
Levi paints an intriguing portrait of a chemist, a detective unraveling the secrets of matter, a philosopher searching for meaning. We learn much about the kinds of problems that excite a chemist and how a chemist goes about searching for answers. But we learn more about Levi himself, about life in a Fascist state, and about human relationships in difficult situations.
Primo Levi titled each chapter with the name of an element that either plays a role in that particular chapter or exhibits characteristics that are metaphorically descriptive of human relationships portrayed in that chapter.
Most chapters revolve about an important biographical event. However, the first chapter, Argon, tells a rather quiet (inert) story of the unexciting Levi family history and it might be best to skip chapter one until later. Hydrogen, the second chapter, is more exciting, almost explosive. Zinc, Iron, Potassium, Nickel, and others follow.
Three chapters - Lead, Mercury, and Carbon - are fictional. I was absolutely fascinated by all three. Levi is a great story teller. Lead should be read by students of history and Mercury likewise.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Avid Reader on July 29 2003
Format: Paperback
Levi is one of my heroes - a scientist who overcame a horrific life experience (the Holocaust camp experience), losing friends and relatives yet did not become bitter or carry his anger for ages. The writer is the face of Western humanism and his Jewish Italian roots seem to make him almost humble in tone.
The idea of naming each chapter after an element then creating a life story around it is exactly the kind of writing to which I and apparently many others are drawn. Besides dispensing scientific facts along the way, Levi teaches us the meaning of life and living and even humor. One of the best and most approachable "science" books around.
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By A Customer on Dec 14 2003
Format: Paperback
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi is quite a fascinating book. Although the first chapter is slow (as pointed out in other reviews) the other chapters are pretty interesting. Although only one chapter directly relates to Auschwitz there is another about Primo's involvement with the partisans in Italy (including the bit about the gun he doesn't know how to use), and a very interesting chapter called Vanadium which is the second last chapter. This chapter is based on Primo's dealings with a German chemist (Dr Muller) in 1967. Dr Muller was a head of the Buna Rubber plant at Auschwitz where Primo worked. Basically Primo has business dealings with this person as well as personal correspondence although it's not as insightful as you might think because by Primo's own admission Dr Muller does not make a perfect protagonist because he was a civilian (business chief of Buna which was part of IG Farben I believe) and not a member of the SS, and therefore Primo realises that he won't get answers to questions like "Why Auschwitz?" (Although Primo corresponding with one of the butchers of Auschwitz could be a bit too weird). Nonetheless Primo's dealings with this person are very complex/interesting/multilayered/etc.
The tale about the centuries long journey of a carbon atom from being part of limestone to being part of Primo's brain is pretty way out too.
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