Primo Levi's The Periodic Table was, I will admit, a very difficult book for me to read, primarily because I'm not schooled in chemistry and am not at all familiar with the Periodic Table. Sad but true. The idea of the book, however, peeked my interest in the sense that Levi tells his life story through the use of the elements, and it is quite a life history.
Telling his absorbing yet horrifying story through 21 autobiographical vignettes or short stories, each chapter represents one of the Periodic elements. Its characteristics each reflect a component of Levi's self with the elements. One element has a component of utter strength. He therefore makes the correlation to the strength of his survival. Another element helped him earn bread for three months while dealing with the horrors of the Nazi camps. However, I am getting ahead of myself. The book really starts off with the element of Argon, and with the use of this element, Levi tells the story of the Jewish ghetto and of his quirky ancestors and neighbors. From there he moves on to his development to chemistry, and this is where the reading gets a little difficult, because he goes on to explain the various importances of the elements. Rather, he features what they are and what they are not good for, how they have been helpful and how they have not been. Each element, in its way, is like its own person with its own character traits. But Levi understands this only through personal and direct human experience. As you read on and learn about the elements, which I fully did, (I got a duel literary and scientific education), things begin to unexpectedly "pop" up, things like poverty, starvation and the gradual emergence of the war as well as the atrocities against the Jews. Levi doesn't go into blatant description of the horrors, but he'll make an off-the-cuff and disturbing comment that will jar you temporarily away from the elements. You will then focus on interrogation, Fossoli di Carpi and Auschwitz. Then you fully realize what he's talking about, and it isn't science that he's dwelling on. He uses it as a tool or device to get into the core of his soul, to extricate the demons of his past.
The Periodic Table was a very slow read for me, but it was one of value whereby I really learned something, not just scientifically and literally but something even deeper then that, something unexplainable. Because the elements have such a resounding resiliency, there was a sense of hope that was conveyed that in our own human nature we too have that perseverance and determination to confront evil and see it for what it is. And most importantly confront it with all our painful might so that it never happens again. This was a stellar and winsome read, especially the latter chapters, heartbreaking, uplifting and just amazingly crafted.
although it is primo levy, this book is not about the holocaust but about work. when you read levi's book you get inspired from his obsession with his work (he was a chemist). this is importnat because in our world you can't really separate between work (meaning a career) and leisure. they both infiltrate one another. so the best thing to do is not to resist the intermingling of them both so work becomes leisure and vica vera. in your work you pebble little havens where you find refuge from … more