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By Primo Levi

Pub Date: May 1st, 1989
ISBN: 671-61149-6
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

In this posthumous collection of essays selected by the author (d. 1988) from pieces originally appearing in the Turin newspaper La Stampa, Levi treats subjects as diverse as writing, fear, insects, word processors, exams, and chess. A majority of the pieces concern nature, from microscopic creatures to the stars, and trace how our knowledge of specific natural phenomena has evolved throughout history. While Levi values the imagination, he underscores the importance of acquiring knowledge of the physical world and remains filled with wonder at the spectacle before us. The book's title is somewhat misleading, because many of the essays (like most of Levi's oeuvre) are autobiographical, derived from childhood memories, people he has known, and his experiences as a scientist and writer. Throughout, Levi manifests a considerable and exacting knowledge of a broad range of subjects and a painstaking effort to organize his material not by formulating facile analogies but by drawing fine distinctions. At times, he approaches the conceptual complexity and philosophical depth of Borges; elsewhere, his obsession with creating catalogues and taxonomies becomes tedious and of unclear motivation. Certain of the essays are long on concrete description and short on ideas; one longs for greater elaboration of themes often introduced only in the closing lines. in general, Levi's penchant for "reading with a magnifying glass" results in prose to be savored for its rare combination of patient observation, expansive imagination, and underlying humanity.