The Periodic Table

by Primo Levi

This is a book that is more about the human story than it is of elements in the Periodic table. In it, Primo tells us the story of his origins in Turin and of his forefathers, his school days and work at various places, especially the varnish factory that occupies several pages of the book and the life at Auschwitz.

No matter how bad you were at Chemistry in high school or college, this is a book that will at once draw you towards being a chemist and make you interested in the subject.

The book begins with Argon, a noble gas where he narrates the story of his ‘inert’ uncle, Barbarico, of whom he says the comparison to inert gases fits like a glove. He tells us this uncle was so lazy and only got up when a patient sent for him. He at one time resigned from a job aboard a ship as a doctor claiming there was too much noise in America.

There are stories of missed opportunities with would be lovers. Stories of despair, courage and determination. All inspired from the different elements in the periodic table.

He ends the second last chapter of the book quite emotionally. He writes

…I declared myself ready to forgive my enemies, and perhaps even to love them, but only when they showed certain signs of repentance, that is, when they ceased being enemies. In the opposite case, that of the enemy who remains an enemy, who perseveres in his desire to inflict suffering, it is certain that one must not forgive him; one can try to salvage him, one can (one must!) discuss with him, but it is our duty to judge him, not to forgive him.

He continues in the same address to write

…. we are not all born heroes, and that a world in which everyone would be like him, that is honest and unarmed, would be tolerable, but this is an unreal world. In the real world, the armed exist, they build Auschwitz, and the honest and unarmed clear the road for them, therefore every German must answer for Auschwitz, indeed every man, and after Auschwitz it is no longer permissible to be unarmed.

The last chapter of the book, dedicated to life is about carbon, the building block of life. He says for carbon, time does not exist or exists only in the form of sluggish temperature variations.

This is a book as one of the reviewers wrote, a book it is necessary to read.

Grab yourself a copy and enjoy the reading. You will thank me.