Sunday, June 23, 2013

Book Review: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

The Periodic Table is a renowned example of chemistry literature, and what Primo Levi has done in this book is unique. Each chapter is an element, but this is not a science book. Each chapter is primarily a story from Levi's life, arranged roughly chronologically, but this is not an autobiography. It skips over whole crucial episodes in Levi's life that are described in other books -- most of his time at Auschwitz, for example -- but rather does indeed focus each story on a particular element, usually literally, as in Levi in his job as a chemist was working with that element in some way, shape or form. Not sure what the word for this is: biochemgraphy, perhaps? At any rate, Levi is as much a writer as he is a chemist, which is to say, he's a very, very good writer.

Levi's crystalline prose is something that I simply hope will absorb in some ways into my own work, but there is something left unsaid. As good as this is, it was written several decades ago, and usually concerns work done in the 40's, 50's and 60's. At the end, in his discussion of the journey of an atom of carbon, Levi mentions that there are many steps that are not known here as he passes them by. But now, they are known! That's what it most exciting about this book, that it is episodic, and therefore it is necessarily incomplete. Others can now complete it. Let's hope there's a future for chem lit ... The Periodic Table clearly shows there was a glorious past for it.

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