A Periodic Table of Books

translated by George Henson
A drawing of books laid out like a portion of the periodic table, each book exhibiting aspects of the element it represents
Iron, Uranium, Calcium, Gold, Praseodymium, Rubidium, Stontium, and Lead books. Illustration by Shayna Pond


Chromium books that are all shiny surface.


Iron books, extremely heavy, which resist being read and are left to rust, little
by little.


Hydrogen books that explode just by opening them.


Zinc books: humble, useful, with a moderate gloss.


Sodium books, which are everywhere but often ignored and react violently to humid glances.


Cesium books, with a precise pulse, reliable, whose titles are seldom remembered.


Phosphorus books: luminous, leaving traces in the deepest parts of the body.


Sulfur books, which cause everyone to turn up their nose but at the same time are indispensable.


Antimony books: always in the company of others, always neglected and misplaced, rarely opened.


Oxygen books: indispensable but never to be read in full, in their pure state, because they go to your head.


Uranium books, which remain forever in your flesh and burn slowly.


Lead books, extremely heavy, which claim to protect but kill instead.


Strontium books, which look yellow but glow burning red.


Calcium books, which form deposits and settle in inaccessible folds.


Potassium books: soft, so they say, but be careful when touching them.


Iodine books: scarce and essential; those who don’t read them are a bit dumber, even if they don’t realize it.


Books made of ytterbium, erbium, terbium, yttrium books: their readers always feel like someone who arrives to an unknown city.


Ruthenium books, which harden us, are difficult to find, and rarely discussed.


Barium books, which we always find with someone else, who treats them almost
like diamonds.


Praseodymium books, which think they are merely useful and practical but conceal a double: a green or metallic mystery.


Rubidium books: almost always thought useless yet inspire vivid dreams of
brilliant red.


Arsenic books, like the one Napoleon read for years, they say, with such fervor that it became part of him.


Platinum books, which can serve as mere decoration, or can be nutritious, or
even explosive.


Cadmium books, which drive readers hopelessly mad, and without the possibility of appeal.


Silver books, which fix images, cure warts, bring rain, open the skin, and threaten
to disappear.


Silicon books: abundant, simple, capable of fixing the memory of both words and light.


Titanium books, which everyone competes for and for petty reasons.


Germanium books, which are very  expensive and always expect to be replaced by others.


Gold books: beautiful, brilliant, but pass through us without causing harm or benefit.


Argon, xenon, radon books: inert.


Mercury books, beautiful in appearance but slippery; they slide away, disappear.


Carbon books: those who feel as if they were part of their life since
before: forever.

Alberto Chimal is the author of the novels La torre y el jardín (2012) and Los esclavos (2009) as well as multiple short-story collections. The recipient of numerous literary prizes, including the National Short Story Prize and the Bellas Artes Prize for Narrative, his work has appeared in English in the Kenyon Review, Asymptote, and WLT. He lives in Mexico City, where he teaches creative writing at the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana.

Photo: Randy Tunnell

George Henson’s translations include Elena Poniatowska’s The Heart of the Artichoke, Sergio Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, and, most recently, Alberto Chimal’s novella The Most Fragile Objects. He teaches Spanish translation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.