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The Periodic Table [Paperback]

Primo Levi
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 4 1995
(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed)

The Periodic Table is largely a memoir of the years before and after Primo Levi’s transportation from his native Italy to Auschwitz as an anti-Facist partisan and a Jew.

It recounts, in clear, precise, unfailingly beautiful prose, the story of the Piedmontese Jewish community from which Levi came, of his years as a student and young chemist at the inception of the Second World War, and of his investigations into the nature of the material world. As such, it provides crucial links and backgrounds, both personal and intellectual, in the tremendous project of remembrance that is Levi’s gift to posterity. But far from being a prologue to his experience of the Holocaust, Levi’s masterpiece represents his most impassioned response to the events that engulfed him.

The Periodic Table celebrates the pleasures of love and friendship and the search for meaning, and stands as a monument to those things in us that are capable of resisting and enduring in the face of tyranny.

From the Hardcover edition.

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From Amazon

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“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

From the Hardcover edition.

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There are the so-called inert gases in the air we breathe. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

4.9 out of 5 stars
4.9 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Symbolism: allegories and elements March 7 2003
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.
(amazon.com wishlist purchase)
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strangely inspiring June 1 2004
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Why only five stars? Sept. 16 1998
By A Customer
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
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Science for Humanity July 29 2003
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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5.0 out of 5 stars Primo Levi's way out book Dec 14 2003
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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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Primo Levi - wish I could meet this man.
I have really enjoyed this mans works. I look for anything and everything he does. The Periodic Table was a nice play on the experience of his life and its relative element.
Published 17 months ago by Ina
3.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing and Trivial
I happened to read this book shortly after reading a book about a character struggling to come to terms with his wife's suicide (from depression) - 'The Dogs of Babel'. Read more
Published on May 25 2004 by A. G. Plumb
5.0 out of 5 stars Sensational!!! Deserves 10 stars
I read this book for the first time about five years ago, but since then I've read it many times (and as a matter of fact, all Primo Levi's books). Read more
Published on Nov. 3 2003 by GNV
5.0 out of 5 stars Science writing at its best
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... Read more
Published on July 6 2003 by Avid Reader
5.0 out of 5 stars surprising
I bought and read this book some time ago but some passages were so good they are still fresh in my memory. This story is both unexpected and very engaging. Read more
Published on Dec 10 2002 by Jon S. Folkedahl
5.0 out of 5 stars There is Beauty in Simplicity....
Chemistry was never my favorite subject. Nor was the Holocaust. Yet Levi manages to bring these two seemingly unrelated topics together in a novel that I can only begin to hope I... Read more
Published on May 17 2002 by ihgmd2b
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining
"You got a new book? What is it?" my roommate asked.
"It's called 'The Periodic Table,' by Primo Levi. He was an Italian Jew who went through Auschwitz. Read more
Published on May 7 2002 by Zachary P. Beane
5.0 out of 5 stars highly recommended
Like many people, I have a prejudice against translations, believing that they cannot match the language of the original. Read more
Published on Oct. 2 2001
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