Monday, November 10, 2008

Rave: The Phantom Tollbooth

I vaguely remember reading Norton Juster's classic book, The Phantom Tollbooth, in probably 4th or 5th grade. I definitely remember how much I enjoyed it and how it actually inspired me to attempt to write something in the same vein. That effort involved some really bad prose (hey, I was 10) and something about an animated garbage can. The particulars of the book, however, have long since drifted into the deep, dusty recesses of my mind. Most likely keeping company with Encyclopedia Brown, the Three Investigators and the Choose Your Own Adventures series.

Fast forward to the now when I am thinking about books for my own children. Is The Phantom Tollbooth still good? Would it make sense in the 21st century as opposed to the late 1970s when I read it? Well, the best way to find out is to read it again.

So I did. And happily it is as good as I remember it and I think I probably appreciate it more as a 39-year-old than I did as ten-year-old. In many ways, Juster is a precursor to another of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams. They have the same facility to play with words, to string them together in a manner that is simultaneously absurd and brilliant, laughable and yet very wise.

Here are just a few tidbits to give you a flavor:
  • Tock: The watchdog whose midsection is a watch and who needs to wound periodically.
  • Alec Bings: A boy who floats in the air, slowly growing down to the ground instead of growing up from it.
  • Subtraction Stew: A delicacy of Digitopolis, the kingdom dedicated to numbers and math in all their facets, it makes you hungrier with every serving. Consequently, it is very important to eat it only when you are quite full.
  • The Island of Conclusions: Which you can get to very easily, by jumping naturally, but which is harder to leave, requiring a long swim through the Sea of Knowledge.
From my perspective, the true genius of The Phantom Tollbooth is the way it all seems so effortless. The wordplay, the crazy and inspired ideas, the puns, the upside-down and inside-out perspective on the world is all so smooth, so... natural that you wonder why you hadn't thought of things in that way yourself. Quite remarkable. And a lot of fun.

I highly recommend The Phantom Tollbooth to young readers and grown-ups alike. Forty-eight years since its creation it is still fresh, fun and thought provoking.

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