The Scientific Indian

Primo Levi on Why Does One Write

The past two days I’ve been dipping into Other People’s Trades, a collection of essays by Primo Levi. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal and published in 1989, Anita Brookner called it ‘The noblest book of the year’. Sadly, amazon informs us that the book is out of print and you’ll have to look for a used copy. I came across mine at a local used book shop. Primo Levi was born in Italy, was deported to Auschwitz, after his release, he was a chemist, a writer, and a man who knew Life intimately. He sought his end in the house that he lived in all his life.

The essays let us glimpse into the mind of a wonderful writer, at once broad and deep, and the gentle way he looks at the world. In the introduction he writes,

I have travelled as a loner and have followed a winding path, forming for myself a haphazard culture; full of gaps, a smattering of knowledge. In recompense, I have enjoyed looking at the world from unusual angles, inventing, so to speak, the instrumentation: examining matters of technique with the eye of a literary men, and literature with the eye of a technician.

Some thoughts could not be captured better than this in words.

In the essay titled Why Does One Write he lists his nine reasons, starting with the most satisfying to the most tragic.

  • Because one feels the drive and the need to do so.
  • To entertain oneself and others.
  • To teach something to someone.
  • To improve the world.
  • To make one’s ideas known.
  • To free oneself from anguish.
  • To become famous.
  • To become rich.
  • Out of habit.
  • When I read the last reason, I recalled what I read somewhere; a burnt-out writer remarking on the book he was commissioned to write, “I don’t have a book to write but I have to write a book”.


  1. #1 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    May 21, 2007
  2. #2 Davin
    May 21, 2007

    Thanks for this – it was a thoughtful reminder about a great writer.

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