Library shelves sag with quotation books, from Bartlett's to Bergan Evans' two-pounder. This month, space is being made for a monumental volume likely to outlast them all. It is "The Great Thoughts" by George Seldes.
He is the 94-year-old newspaperman and press critic who lives in Hartland- 4-Corners, Vt., and who lives -- through the spirit of his idealism -- in every newsroom where independent journalism is practiced. Seldes is an unsettling presence because he still thinks like the agitator and ego-deflator he was when sent off to cover World War I. "In my days," he recalled recently, "all newspapermen were rebels, nonconformists, a bit radical. Nowadays, journalism is a stepping stone -- for Hollywood, something bigger and better. There was nothing in my time. We were at the center of the world -- or at least we thought we were. We didn't run the city, but we knew the crooks who did."
As a newspaperman, Seldes has an instinct for topicality. America is now observing the 10th anniversary of its losing the Vietnam War. Here is Seldes with the thought of Ho Chi Minh: "You will kill ten of our men, and we will kill one of yours, and in the end it will be you who tire of it."
In "Great Thoughts," Seldes is as much a scholar as a culler. His 512-page reference work offers the ideas of some 2,500 men and women whose ideas have influenced their times and ours. What is a great thought? Seldes confesses that he has no answer, except that he has looked
TAKE 210621 PAGE 00002 TIME 15:46 DATE 04-13-85 through the original works -- books, letters, diaries, statements -- of everyone from Abelard to Zwingli, and subjects from Aaron's rod to Zen, for what is profound, exciting, clear and lasting.
With the Supreme Court and the Reagan administration currently putting moves on draft resisters, Seldes provides an historical context for the rebellious young who are saying no to the government. In the introduction he tells of a 1956 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Then, as now, it had its reactionaries. The leading one 30 years ago was Sen. A. V. Watkins, a Utah Republican. When an official from Americans for Democratic Action referred to a line from Thomas Jefferson, Seldes writes that Watkins "denounced it as false and unbelievable.
"Confronted with the evidence -- a letter from Jefferson to Madison in 1787, available in most history books in most of the nation's libraries -- Sen. Watkins declared: 'If Jefferson were here and advocated such a thing, I would move that he be prosecuted.'
Jefferson's criminal idea? "I hold that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing."
Seldes is a solid compiler, but when necessary he adds the footnote that provides the extra fact behind the thought. Four ideas of Dwight Eisenhower are offered, including the one that endures as an indictment against the current hysteria to rearm an already overarmed America: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." Seldes saw greatness in that thought but honesty moved him to write: "Eisenhower was incapable of speaking English correctly -- all the quotations which follow were written by a corps of White House ghosts, notably
TAKE 210621 PAGE 00003 TIME 15:46 DATE 04-13-85 the eminent Emmet John Hughes."
Between 1940 and 1950, Seldes published some literary eminence of his own -- his muckraking newsweekly, "In Fact." It reached a circulation of 200,000, and its blazonry inspired I. F. Stone to begin his weekly years later. "In Fact" broke the story that lung cancer was linked to cigarette smoking. Those who remember that scoop will understand why Seldes includes in "The Great Thoughts" Hajji Khalifah, a Turkish writer who died in 1658. Next to John Maynard Keynes and Soren Kierkegaard, Khalifah writes: "As to its (tobacco's) harmful effects there is no doubt. . . . Tobacco is medically noxious in that it makes morbid the aerial essence. . . . For the men of dry temperament . . . it is no wise permissible. It will increase his dryness and will constantly dessicate the moisture of his lungs."
Seldes includes several people who could as well have been left out -- Gore Vidal, Henry Luce, George Patton -- and excludes others who deserved to be in: Danilo Dolci, Tu Fu, Jeanette Rankin, St. Catherine, Thomas Merton. Arguments will soon be raging over omissions and inclusions. Where full agreement is likely is that George Seldes is a true sage and a strength to all who know him. More, his "Great Thoughts" is a great idea.