The Phantom Tollbooth written by Norton Juster, is basically a children’s book, now well over fifty years old, centered on wordplay. It is another of those children’s books that I missed in my youth and which I am now using this three-year study-time to go back and finally experience. The Phantom Tollbooth has much in common with Alice In Wonderland, in that a child goes into a world of his own and has comical adventures with bizarre characters in which lots of puns and word-twistings are involved.
The book could be a great read for the right child at the right time– when he or she is at that stage during which children really begin to become conscious of language. Most children I know go through this (sometimes annoying) stage during which time they want to hold adults to very strict standards when it comes to word-usage. They want words to keep the exact same meaning in every context, and they can’t stand sloppy talk or untruths. Metaphoric language perplexes and thus irritates them. Anyone whose been “corrected” by their children knows what I’m talkin’ ’bout.
Nevertheless, for good or for ill, words do NOT keep to exact and single meanings, and we adults often use expressions that, taken literally, make no sense whatsoever. Juster takes these habitual or hackneyed phrases and holds them up to the light to be turned and flipped and thoroughly examined and seen again for the first time, providing the reader, as it were, a new set of lenses through which to view the world, since our old ones do tend to get so awfully dusty and rainbow-robbing.
Personally, I was tired of the wordplay long before the end of the book– which surprises no one more than me since 90% of my own sense of humor is based on wordplay. Another annoyance I had with the book was that, toward the end, our author seems to have had all these wordplay-characters leftover whom he couldn’t squeeze into the story, and so we suffer a barrage of these quickly parading past. Simply listing characters with witty names and fantastical habits does not a story make. Most especially, I found that some particular bird-characters introduced, whose pastime is the seemingly purposeful misinterpretation of homophones, grows tiresome quickly, largely because not all the jokes really work.
Our main character, through whose eyes we experience the story, is Milo. Milo is a young man who is always in too much of a hurry to really notice things. He comes home from school to find awaiting him a mysterious gift, the titular Phantom Tollbooth. He drives through it in a little toy car, and we’re off to a new Wonderland.
There he meets many characters, including two which will become his companions, Tock the dog, and the Humbug– the latter appearing to serve little purpose as a companion other than to give Tock a break from his role as sidekick.
Everyone who has read the book probably has a favorite character. Mine may very well be the Dodecahedron, who has twelve different “faces” which he can rotate through, each with a distinct emotional expression. I especially liked that he had an “admonishing face” as part of his arsenal of a dozen moods. It is the Dodecahedron who makes the Kantian observation of life that, “if you want sense, you’ll have to make it yourself.”
There’s also the boy who begins life hovering about six feet above the ground. This is his future, full adult height. From there, as he matures, he grows downward, until, when he is fully grown, his feet will finally touch the ground.
There’s plenty of philosophy in the book, such as the warning, told in a fable-like way, that if we don’t pay attention to lovely sights and sounds around us, then they might just as well not exist at all– and in a sense, for us, they don’t exist. In this way, hurrying and scurrying, we can cheat ourselves out of the abundance of beauty surrounding us on even the most ordinary day.
The point is also made that, because no one told Milo his quest was an impossible one, he didn’t know any better and went ahead and tried and succeeded any way. As it should be.
I recommend that The Phantom Tollbooth be added to any parents’ reading list for their children.