Another book from Gene Wilson arrived this week. It’s the best mail I ever get at work.
This time it was an 1884 edition of Aesop’s Fables. The cover is peeling off, and the whole thing crackles when you open it up, but the illustrations are beautiful and you can still learn from the morals: Cure a boaster by putting his words to the test. In quarreling about the shadow, we often lose the substance.
Over the past year or so, Gene has sent me half a dozen books. The first couple were on grammar and composition. I thought he was trying to tell me something. But he followed up with an email saying he thought a writer would enjoy books on writing. (He was right.)
After that he sent me a cookbook from colonial Williamsburg – if you ever need to make sweetmeat pudding, I’ve got the recipe – and then a book on English usage, and a self-help book on word mastery, and now the fables. The newest book in the bunch dates to 1957. The rest are much older. James M. Hanna, an early owner of “Parker’s Progressive Exercises in English Composition,” penciled his name inside the front cover in 1878.
I’ve never met Gene. He’s a secret pen pal sending me treasures from the past. When I got the book this week, I spread out the whole collection on my desk. I figured it was time to call him.
Gene is 77. He and his wife, Marcia, live in a house they built 10 years ago out in Rutherford County, between Caroleen and Forest City. It’s old family property. He grew up in the area, spent a couple years in the Army, went off to college. He ended up spending more than 40 years as a professor of psychology, mostly in the university system of Pennsylvania.
He and Marcia have eight cats and five dogs. A sixth dog is living with a neighbor. It got ahold of some of the cats.
When he and his wife were living south of Pittsburgh, he started going to auctions. He found out you could sometimes get a whole cardboard box of books for five bucks. That’s a deal no matter what books are inside. He didn’t look for rare books or first editions. It didn’t matter if the binding was ragged. What mattered were the words.
“I have never written for publication,” Gene says. “I used to enjoy writing letters of recommendation for students. But I love reading good writing, economical writing. That’s one reason I enjoy cookbooks. You find very few adjectives in a cookbook.”
Now Gene haunts flea markets. There’s one in Danieltown, outside Forest City, and a big one in Chesnee, S.C., just over the border. Most times he can get a book for 50 cents. He never pays more than $2. He buys damaged paintings, too. He takes them back home and gets out his paints and fixes them up.
It has been a little grim around the Wilson house. Gene has diverticulitis and has been on a feeding tube; he’s not supposed to eat or drink anything, although he has sneaked in a couple servings of ice cream. Marcia found out last November that she has lung cancer. But they keep running around and talking and reading their books.
Gene knows he’ll never read all the ones he’s bought. He likes the idea of being surrounded by all those beautiful sentences.
Online, we pass good stuff around through links. But there are links in the real world, too – the kind of links you can hold in your hands, the ones that connect you with other people from long ago who burned to get their words out into the world.
There’s a guy over in Rutherford County who has a house full of links. And every so often, he sends one out.