The Periodic Table

By Primo Levi

Rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed this collection of mostly autobiographical stories, sketching the life of the author, a Jewish-Italian chemist who grew up in the 1930s and who later spent time in a concentration camp. The stories each take a chemical element as their starting point, before wandering off in sometimes unexpected directions. For example, Hydrogen is about Levi as a child, with a friend, experimenting with electrolysis while Chromium is a cautionary tale about how processes that once had a point can become fossilised and sometimes even harmful. There are also a few pieces of outright fiction in the book, which he wrote during his first job after graduation, trying to extract nickel from waste rock that was being mined for asbestos and which are interesting in their own right.

The writing is clear and straightforward. It doesn’t necessarily have “literary flourishes” but is enjoyable to read, and the chemistry is enlightening. I must confess that I’ve given little thought to industrial chemistry and the processes that enable the analysis and transformation of matter, so it’s really interesting to see Levi shed some light on it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780349121987
Publisher: Abacus
Year of publication: 1975

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