The Periodic Table - Primo Levi

When you look at the title of the book “The Periodic Table”, you may judge it as a book with grand chemistry, physical properties and reactions of all the elements shrunk into the size of a handbook for a quick reference. But honey, it is not the case. The author being a chemist focuses on solitary chemistry rather than writing equations and formulae. 21 elements; a chapter for each on his confrontations with them and how they played a major role in shaping his character and personality. The chapters are a montage of politics, literature, history and art. 

The author is an Italian- Jew whose ancestors, origin translates back to Spain. They migrated to Piedmont, Italy in around 1500’s via Provence, France. He and his family faced racial discrimination in the country. The author is an anti-fascist.

The author connects the elements to his life and the people involved at that period, in a way that we can actually feel the importance of each element from his view and how beautifully everything is interconnected in this world.

I love the simplicity in his description.

In each chapter, a new element and the person associated with that element are introduced which together make that period of time significant in the author’s life. Some elements involve in a very subtle way, but we, the readers can appreciate its subtleness and the beauty of its existence.

Some of my favorite lines from the book are;

Pages 33-34: Zinc, when impure, is so tender and delicate and prone to the acid attacks easily. But when it is pure, it obstinately resists the attack. “The praise of purity, which protects the evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life.”

Page 202: “Trustworthiness is the most constant virtue, which is not acquired or lost with the years. One is born worthy of trust, with an open face and steady eyes, and remains such for life. He who is born contorted and lax remains that way: He, who lies to you at six, lies to you at sixteen and sixty.”

Page 215: “Perfection belongs to narrated events, not to those we live.”

For the people who are not familiar with the western history and languages, especially, Hebrew, German and Italian, may find it inconvenient to follow the references that the author has made.