Bright Lights, Big City


Our Daily Correspondent


From the giveaway table.

I’ve mentioned my building’s giveaway table in this space before. If you’re clearing your bookshelves, you can leave just about any volume on the table and find it snapped up with gratifying alacrity. I’ve scavenged treasures aplenty there, and marveled at all manner of curiosities: The Kosher Cajun CookbookCelebrity Vineyards, Who’s Who in Dogs, a CD of music for kids called Oy Baby!, and The Winds of Fortune: the Memoirs of Guy de Rothschild. (Incidentally, if anyone is studying macroeconomics, there’s a pretty good line in used textbooks.) 

But over the weekend, I picked up something different. It’s an old Modern Library hardcover of War and Peace, the Constance Garnett translation. And there, on the flyleaf, is an inscription:

For Julie—
Because she is the only remaining bright light in a blacked out town.
Atlantic City 1942

It is a boy’s handwriting, I think. I have not tried too hard to imagine the rest: the war, loss, a reunion, a life together, or maybe just growing up and growing apart. Whatever I guessed would be wrong and would be informed by a hundred romantic movies and books. Still, I can’t help but imagine what preceded the gift: the serious conversation, his impressions of the novel, his lectures—her interest, real or feigned—and the sense that, when going off to war, Tolstoy might make some sense of it. The urgency of it all. Maybe they corresponded about it; maybe she never read it.

I don’t know who left this book on the giveaway table. It’s a big building, and a lot of people have been here for a long time—some since the 1930s. I don’t think anyone has died lately. And supposing someone had, wouldn’t that call for a less piecemeal dispersal of her library?

Then again, why hold the book for this long, only to give it away? Maybe someone got it years ago—at a used bookstore, or a tag sale—and is now passing it along himself. 

I’ve never loved those stories of objects passing through the ages, like The Red Violin. Even Hitty: Her First Hundred Years feels somber. These narratives are like mementos mori and give one a feeling of insignificance, like looking at the night sky. But I felt I had to take the book—there was no question about it—and the moment had a certain weight. 

I scoured the book for notations and memoranda. I only found one, near the end, so faint that it might have been made carelessly, in error. 

“Why are you going away? Why are you so upset? What for?” Natasha asked Pierre, looking with challenging eyes into his face.

“Because I love you!” he wanted to say, but he did not say it. He crimsoned till the tears came, and dropped his eyes.