Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ten great books #5: The Phantom Tollbooth

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The Phantom Tollbooth

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

The Phantom Tollbooth is the best fictional handbook I’ve ever seen on how to be alive. It’s supposedly written for children, but if anything, the lessons it holds are even more urgent for adults, who need to be reminded from time to time of what a young child understands instinctively. I’ve noted before that you can’t fully appreciate the horrors of the Terrible Trivium, “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit,” until you’ve held your first job. This isn’t to say that children don’t understand boredom, busywork, or meaningless wastes of time: when we romanticize our own childhoods, it’s easy to forget that much of a child’s life is spent waiting around for something to happen. The difference is that adults construct these traps for themselves. Norton Juster’s great book is a manual of escape, not into fantasy, but into reality—that is, into the possibilities of life that we ignore because we tend to take them for granted. Other children’s fantasy novels offer up a vision of a world that is more beautiful than ours, and they leave us wishing that we could visit Narnia or Hogwarts just for a little while. Juster leaves you hungry for the books and people and ideas that are there for you to explore right now, if you’re willing to master a few simple tools: words, numbers, perspective, time, curiosity, and sense of humor. As the Senses Taker warns:

I’ll steal your sense of purpose, take your sense of duty, destroy your sense of proportion—and, but for one thing, you’d be helpless yet…I cannot take your sense of humor, and, with it, you’ve nothing to fear from me.

Of course, none of these lessons would count for anything if the book itself weren’t such great fun. Juster sometimes reads like Douglas R. Hofstader or Joseph Heller for the grade school set: he loves puns, wordplay, and sly inversions of familiar ideas, but all of these good jokes are windows into deeper truths. It’s all too easy to jump to Conclusions, which in The Phantom Tollbooth is a very crowded island, but you can only get back after a long swim through the Sea of Knowledge. You emerge from the Doldrums—where the schedule, with its four naps, looks a lot like the routine of the residents in The Magic Mountain—by thinking. When you’re faced with such terrors as the Triple Demons of Compromise, the Horrible Hopping Hindsight, and the Gorgons of Hate and Malice, your best chance of rescue lies in marshaling all the wisdom you’ve acquired along the way. And you especially need to remember the very important thing about Milo’s quest that couldn’t be told to him until he returned:

“It was impossible,” said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
“Completely impossible,” said the Mathemagician, looking at the king…
“Yes, indeed,” they repeated together, “but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone—and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

It’s a lesson I’ve tried to remember, with varying degrees of success, for most of my life—but I occasionally need a reminder. And thanks to Milo, and Norton Juster, I always know where to find it.

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2013 at 9:00 am

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