Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Phantom Tollbooth and the Terrible Trivium

with 9 comments

Michael Chabon’s wonderful appreciation of The Phantom Tollbooth in the New York Review of Books puts me gratefully in mind of one of my own favorite novels, a book that I read and loved as a child but didn’t fully appreciate until picking it up again a few years ago. As a kid, you respond most immediately to the surface pleasures of Norton Juster’s great book: the puns, the absurd characters and situations, the seemingly effortless skill in storytelling, and, not least of all, Jules Feiffer’s remarkable illustrations. It’s only much later that you realize that this book of amiable nonsense is actually an instruction manual on how to be alive, and in particular on how to be a real grownup.

Most works of art are gloriously useless, but The Phantom Tollbooth is one of those rare novels, like In Search of Lost Time, that is both a masterpiece and full of incredibly useful advice. Juster doesn’t simply put Milo in the Doldrums, for instance, but gets him out as well. How? By thinking. He demonstrates how easy it is to jump to Conclusions, and that you can only get back with a long swim in the Sea of Knowledge, from which you emerge perfectly dry. He tells you how to deal with the Senses Takers of the world, whose forms and questions can drain you of your sense of purpose, duty, and proportion—but not if you keep your sense of humor. Through my namesake, Alec Bings, he reminds you to always look at the world from different points of view. And it’s a miniature symposium, of course, on the joys of words, numbers, colors, and music.

But the greatest episode in the novel, and one that you can only truly understand after you’ve tried to be a grownup for a while, is the story of the Terrible Trivium. Reading this scene again a few years back, after I’d quit my old job and was trying to make a life for myself as a writer, was a jawdropping experience. In the Mountains of Ignorance, Milo and his friends encounter an elegantly dressed gentleman without a face, who charmingly asks them to complete a few simple tasks—moving an enormous pile of sand with a pair of tweezers, emptying a well with an eyedropper, digging a hole through a cliff with a needle. They get contentedly to work, and it’s only after hours have passed, and Milo calculates that they won’t be done for another eight hundred years, that the awful truth about the stranger emerges:

“Quite correct!” he shrieked triumphantly. “I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”

And then he explains, whispering softly:

“Now do come and stay with me. We’ll have so much fun together. There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why, if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again—and with a little practice you can become a monster of habit, too.”

Needless to say, Milo and his friends escape—but it took me years to make my escape as well, and as we all know, the Terrible Trivium is always lurking nearby, ready to snatch us up. It’s for that reason that I try to reread The Phantom Tollbooth every couple of years, if only as a reminder that the world is full of books and ideas and art and music, that I have all the tools I need to be a real human being, and that as much as I’d like to live in Juster’s world—which is the greatest children’s book of the twentieth century—there’s just so much to do right here.

As a bonus, here’s the map I drew for my wedding day, inspired by Jules Feiffer’s beautiful endpapers:

9 Responses

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  1. Interesting book…will check it out.

    I insist on being a child forever, not sure whether reading this will validate me.

    I have had some experiences…

    While sitting in the children’s section of the bookstore…people that show up there with you.

    Some of them are on skateboards and they are over 30.

    This is not a judgment, just a visual.

    Arthur

    April 27, 2011 at 9:19 pm

  2. I’ve been talking about The Phantom Tollbooth for years, and no one seems to know what I’m talking about. It was also made into a fantastic movie/cartoon. I feel like I am also chased or taunted by the Terrible Trivium,- which I forgot was named that- Ha! What a horrible villain! Thanks for sharing this :)

    Christine

    October 23, 2012 at 8:25 pm

  3. Glad you liked it! I’m surprised that the people you’ve been talking to haven’t heard of The Phantom Tollbooth, which is probably the best children’s book of the century. Anyway, it’s their loss!

    nevalalee

    October 24, 2012 at 10:07 am

  4. >>probably the best children’s book of the century<<

    I'm with you, nevalalee!! And I too make sure I read this book at least every couple of years.

    Thanks for this wonderful post!

    RedChef

    October 24, 2013 at 12:18 pm

  5. I just finished reading it again as an adult almost 20 years later and it does hit more home now. So much depth and perspective on life that I missed the first time as a child. Nice map! I think you captured the essence.

    Also, I think Tim Burton should make a movie of The Phantom Tollbooth. It’s right up his alley, don’t you think?

    Kristen Reichert

    December 27, 2013 at 10:01 pm

  6. I really enjoyed the Chuck Jones version when I saw it as a child, although I haven’t seen it in years. And glad you liked the map!

    nevalalee

    December 28, 2013 at 12:46 pm

  7. I always had been horrified by the Terrible Trivium, because it seems so easy to fill our lives with unimportant tasks. It’s after all a “monster of habit.”

    Joseph Li

    February 18, 2014 at 12:29 pm

  8. The older I get, the more it scares me!

    nevalalee

    February 19, 2014 at 6:43 am

  9. This is a really good book and I love this book already.

    Travion Porter

    November 10, 2016 at 10:10 pm


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