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The Periodic Table Paperback – April 4, 1995

4.7 out of 5 stars 88 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Schocken; Reissue edition (April 4, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805210415
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805210415
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #21,041 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
When I was 14, my high school chemistry teacher gave my class a writing assignment, which really pissed us off. We were in a chemistry class, why did Mr. Ellison expect us to write a short story? It wasn't actually an entire story: the first half was already written for us. It was about the 'adventures' of one atom of carbon. I felt like I was reading a book for small children on molecular chemistry because the writing style was simple, with no extra flourishes and long, scientific phrases. How demeaning to 14 year old me! In any case, I went home and wrote a completely uninspired ending to the carbon-atom fairy tale. If I remember correctly, the rest of the class did the same thing. Some were better than others, but none of them even began to come close to the original ending.
Mr. Ellison took our mediocre stories and, in a bargain where we definately got the better deal, gave us the end of Primo Levi's Carbon, the last chapter of The Periodic Table. Nothing had prepared me for it. That simple style that I had so despised the night before was in fact the work of a writer who had stripped off all of those unnecessary phrases that I had been looking for, who had left nothing but the unadorned truth. Struck by this, I went out and bought the book.
It consists of 21 chapters, each of which have an element of the periodic table as their themes. But in truth each chapter/story is based on one idea which is explored. Some stories are pure fiction, some are remembrances, and some are meditations. They range from family gatherings to amusing teenage chemistry mistakes to the threads that bind us all together. Levi was not only a gifted chemist and a gifted writer, but someone who had that rare talent of opening his personal philosphies to the reader, and you can't help but feel that you've gotten to know him by the end of the book, which certainly makes the read worth it.
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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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By A Customer on September 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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Format: Hardcover
I first read The Periodic Table in a college course on 20th century Italian literature. Since then I have reread it perhaps a half dozen times. Parts of it -- the chapter about Sandro, for instance, and the last chapter -- I have reread many more times than that.
It is such a great book -- such a clear-eyed, deeply felt, wide-ranging look at the human cost of Fascism and the Holocaust -- that anything I could possibly say about it would be idiotically trite. All I can really say, in honesty, is that I think it is one of the greatest books ever written. In any language. In any century. On any topic.
Having never read it in translation, I have trouble imagining how a translator could capture the poetry and the rich literary resonances of Levi's deceptively simple writing style. It is the kind of writing where you read sentences over again, sometimes aloud, just for their rythm and sound. However, friends who have read it in English say the translation is excellent. Even if it weren't, it's a book no thinking person should go without reading. It has a beauty and a gripping quality that goes far, far beyond style.
Just read it. Unlike most books you hear this about, it REALLY WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE.
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