I really enjoyed this book a lot, even though my high school experience with chemistry left something (many things) to be desired.
This book explores, as the title admirably suggests, the history of the periodic table of the elements. The author starts with the evolution of the periodic table itself, a history about which I knew absolutely nothing. He then dives into the elements themselves, discussing their "discoveries," the scientists who discovered them, and even some of the elements' fascinating properties (whence comes the "disappearing spoon" part of the title).
I had expected a sort of systematic tour through the periodic table, starting with hydrogen and ending in the unpronounceable and mysterious inhabitants of the elemental kids' table at the bottom of the chart. However, that's not the m.o. here, though the organization of the book was never totally clear to me.
My only real complaint was that Sam Kean tried too hard to be Bill Bryson. That is, Kean seemed to bounce between a fairly straightforward historical tone, and the slightly sardonic tone of Bill Bryson's non fiction, which is very effective when done just right. But it seems a bit out of place when it appears in Kean's book, and I'm not sure but I suspect it's because Kean's tone is otherwise pretty straight, only occasionally veering into humor. Whatever the reason, sometimes the sardonic tone grated. I sort of found myself wishing Bryson had written this book.
But I learned a lot and I definitely recommend this book for anyone who enjoys nonfiction and who thought chemistry class was boring.