Its title translated literally from the Italian means “If This Is a Man,” and that is the central question of Levi’s lucid memoir, possibly the single most essential work of Holocaust literature. A chemist by training who spent 11 months in Auschwitz, Levi recognized that the camp’s perverse rules and systems constituted “a gigantic biological and social experiment” designed to strip the prisoners of their humanity. But in the midst of the Inferno, he recalls a passage from Dante: “For brutish ignorance / Your mettle was not made; you were made men, / To follow after knowledge and excellence.” His work is as authentically life-affirming as a book about the Holocaust could possibly be.