Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Imaginative Thinker: A Commonplace Book

Second Spring Break 2012 Kindle book.

Preface to the Kindle Edition

The Kindle book you hold in your hands is essentially a commonplace book I kept in four Chinese diaries I brought home from Shanghai in the early 1980s. Appropriately, I have made a scan of one of the diary covers the cover of this book.

In 1945 the Boston lawyer Charles P. Curtis, Jr. and Ferris Greenslet, the literary editor for Houghton-Mifflin, collaborated on a book they called The Practical Cogitator: The Thinker’s Anthology. The book had its inception during the war, in Curtis’ dream of developing a pocket anthology on the “great themes of life” that (in the words of a later Houghton-Mifflin editor) “even a long war might not exhaust.” Early on in their collaboration, Curtis and Greenslet set down rules for the selection of the quotations they would include in The Practical Cogitator:

it would include nothing familiar or readily accessible;
it would exclude the inspirational, the sentimental, and the cynical;
only passages worthy of multiple re-readings would be given space;
the editors would emphasize modern over ancient authors
the editors would not limit themselves to particular forms: “Treatise, textbook, letter, novel, speech, verse, anything is given equal welcome.” No verse would be included for its own sake.

The editors also decided to make no attempt at “complete exposition”: “The extracts provide pegs, stout and well driven in, on which you can hang your own further thoughts.” The Practical Cogitator, they explain in the “Preface to the First Edition,” would be a “dry wall”; “the only cement is a few comments.” It was their intent to provide what they call “a cerebral Coast Pilot”: "a compilation of what those who have been down this way before report to those who might otherwise have to pick their course through these channels and into these harbors with nothing but the lead lines." The completed “thinker’s anthology” went on to sell 100,000 copies in 1945 and 1950 editions and was reissued in the 1980s by Houghton-Mifflin.

The “Publishers’ Note” in the latter informs us that Curtis and Greenslet were asked to update the contents of their book—making it conform more to the spirit of post-war thought—for the 1950 edition. No such updating was made for the most recent edition. It remains top-heavily dependent on admirable passages from the writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., John Dewey, William James—a collection which would, in fact, make a perfect mate for Adler’s How to Read a Book.

The Imaginative Thinker is an anthology of a very different sort. I have not sought to provide “pegs, stout and well driven in. . . .” I have tried to open doors, to instill wonder: to cultivate imagination. No “cerebral Coast Pilot”—Curtis and Greensleet patterned their title after Bowditch’s Practical Navigator; I, of course, return their complement by patterning my title in opposition to theirs—the anthology you hold in your hands aspires to take the reader into the deep, the open sea. Anything but pragmatic in orientation and purpose, it aspires to be no less than a book of wonders, a selection of thought probes and mind-boggling ideas.

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