Introduction to our discussion of “The Periodic Table”

Recommending this book was a departure from my normal practice.

Up until now, whenever it has been my turn to select our book, I have asked myself, “What book does the world need to read?” (and this is true even of the one fiction book that I recommended). A book club gives us the power to induce other people to read books that they otherwise would not read, and to come together afterward and exchange thoughts about them. With this power comes the duty to use it for the improvement of the human condition.

The books that the world needs to read, and to discuss afterwards, more than anything else, are books that make us think clearly about important things, because thinking clearly about important things is what the world needs more than anything else. That is why I chose the five other books (four nonfiction and one fiction), that I chose in the past years that I have been involved in our book club. It is tragic when people waste their powers of thought and speech on weather and sports, when there is work to do alleviating others' suffering; and that is why the only proper topics of public conversation are politics, religion, and sex.

The problem with this approach is that I have been recommending books that people have not read. This is not to deny or disparage those of you who have read my books, but — let's be frank — most of you have not, and there's no point in recommending books that almost no one reads from beginning to end, and many people don't read at all.

So this time I departed, temporarily, from my normal practice, and picked a book that would be enjoyable to read, and enjoyable to discuss.

The books that I love to read are books that make me think, so there is some overlap between the two approaches, and that are also beautiful. But when you are in a book club you have to choose a book that is not only enjoyable to read, but that can also be profitably discussed with your friends: Not every book that you love reading lends itself to an enjoyable discussion afterwards. I love reading books of mathematical puzzles, because they make me think, but what advantage is there to discussing them afterwards? If two people both read the same book of mathematical puzzles, and then come together to discuss it, they can agree that it was a great read, they can validate one another's feelings, but there is really not much that they can learn from each other.

And there are also books that make you think, but that are not beautiful, which is not a word that I can define, but I think you understand what I am trying to say. You might enjoy reading a textbook on an interesting topic, and the topic might even be a beautiful one — biology, let's say — but that does not mean that the textbook was beautiful.

I chose “The Periodic Table” because I love it, because it makes you think, and it is beautiful. There is nothing so beautiful as the human mind, and when you read “The Periodic Table” you are in the presence of an amazing mind, and you feel awe and reverence, it is like what the ancient Greeks must have felt when they looked up at the mist-covered peaks of Mount Olympus.

And there is more to it than that. If all I wanted was to be in the presence of a beautiful mind, I could have picked a Nabokov novel, but I will never pick a Nabokov novel, because the beauty of a Nabokov novel is only in the depth and breadth and power of the mind that created it, there is no other aspect to the book's beauty, no other way of appreciating it than by appreciating the talent that brought it into being. Primo Levi brings more to a book than that. This is not something that I can articulate well, but it is like the difference between Da Vinci and El Greco.

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