Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"The Phantom Tollbooth" at 50

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (with illustrations by Jules Feiffer). In honor of that milestone, Random House has put out a new edition, complete with essays by various notable fans on what the book meant to them, growing up. I was not asked to participate. Nether were a lot of other admirers of around my age, so perhaps I speak for some of them when I try to explain why I love this book so much.

I tried to tell the author – he was teaching architecture at Hampshire College in 1973, when I was attending the school. I hunted him down in his office at the Cole Science Center like a spaniel splashing after a downed greenhead duck. By that time the professor was tired of the hunt, though. He informed me in a cantankerous growl that he absolutely no desire to talk about ‘that book’ to anyone, ever again.

Too bad. I had a lot to say.

The book tells the story of a bored little boy named Milo:

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be back in. On the way he thought about coming home,and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered … “It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time,” he remarked one day as he walked dejectedly home from school. “I can’t see the point of learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is, or how to spell February.” And since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.

One day, Milo comes home to find an easily assembled toll booth and a working toy car sitting in his bedroom. With nothing better to do, he puts the toll booth together and drives through it … into ‘the lands beyond’, otherwise known as The Kingdom of Knowledge, a fabulous principality set up in every particular to refute and banish his boredom and indifference to the world around him. He winds up on a quest to save the twin Princesses Rhyme and reason from their captivity in the Mountains of ignorance, with a motley crew of friends and comrades in arms, including the “watch dog”, Tock, whose body is mostly composed of a loudly ticking antique watch, and a large impeccably dressed roach named the Humbug, who at one point, swims several miles in the Sea of Knowledge without getting wet.

I was nine when the book came out and I didn’t get a lot of this. I just like the adventure -- the Kingdom of words (Dictionopolis) and the Kingdom of numbers, (Digitopolis), the scary monsters in the mountains, the happy ending, the glorious scratchy drawings.

But I read the book again when I was twelve, and suddenly got some of the jokes. The ruler of Dictionopolis is King Azaz, the Unabridged; the foods at the feast include rigamaroles, ragamuffins, synonym buns, half-baked ideas…and of course just desserts. The royal vehicle “goes without saying” – that is, it only moves when everyone riding in is silent. In later readings I figured out that the fat dwarf policeman “Short Shrift” was another pun, that the flight across the water to the isle of conclusions was a jump, and it happened whenever you made an assumption based on too little information. The Point of View was not just as scenic overlook – it was a house where the fat man, the thin man the giant and the midget all lived together. Of course they were all the same average-sized man. To a giant, he seemed like a midget, to a fat man he seemed thin …

Each time I read the book – at thirteen, and fifteen, and nineteen – I got more of its sly jokes. I could almost chart my maturing sense of humor and my larger sense of the world around me by the layers of Juster’s story that opened up for me on subsequent readings. And the creatures in the mountains of ignorance, from the wordsnatcher (who takes the words right out of your mouth) to the terrible Trivium, the demon of petty tasks, to the Senses Taker who robs you not just of your senses of smell and taste but also your sense of purpose, proportion and duty, hut can’t steal your sense of humor, all meant much more to be as I got older.

And the final secret of Milo’s quest, the one thing that neither King would share with him, meant the most to me as I launched myself into a tentative adulthood.

The quest was impossible.

They knew that if Milo understood that grim fact, he would give up instantly. So they never told him, and he didn’t give up and he wound up accomplishing the impossible.

That’s a lesson I still hold on to. Things haven’t gotten any easier since I first read The Phantom Tollbooth. But the book’s wit and charm and effervescent optimism always make them a little easier to bear. That’s what I wanted to say to Norton Juster, all those years ago, in his office at Hampshire College. I’d still like to tell him. But the internet is a strange and unpredictable thing. You never know who's reading this stuff. Maybe I just did tell him, after all.

I sure hope so.

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