Jared Diamond: By the Book


In the NYT:

What was the last truly great book you read?

Primo Levi, “If This Is a Man” (original, “Se Questo È un Uomo,” 1947). At one level, Levi’s book is about how as a young Italian Jewish chemist joining the resistance during World War II, he was captured, sent to Auschwitz, and survived. At another level, the book is about our everyday life issues, magnified: the life-and-death consequences of chance, the problem of evil, the impossibility of separating one’s moral code from surrounding circumstances, and the difficulties of maintaining one’s sanity and humanness in the presence of injustice and bad people. Levi dealt with these issues and was lucky, with the result that he survived Auschwitz and went on to become one of the greatest authors (both of nonfiction and fiction) of postwar Italy. But he survived at a price. One of the prices, the loss of his religious beliefs, he summarized as follows: “I must say that the experience of Auschwitz for me was such as to sweep away any remnants of the religious education that I had had. . . . Auschwitz existed, therefore God cannot exist. I find no solution to that dilemma. I seek a solution, but I don’t find it.”