The Phantom Tollbooth
The Phantom Tollbooth is a fable in every chapter, clever wit in every paragraph, and careful thought in every sentence. It is both a treatise on critical thinking and a tender story of a young boy’s adventure. It is just as much an epic struggle between Wisdom and Ignorance as it is a playful comedy where the first character to cry is a watchdog named Tock lamenting the fact that he goes ticktickticktick while his brother Tick goes tocktocktocktock. Perhaps most importantly, its excellence is a testament to the fruits of curious wonder and deep wisdom, two values that its fantastical characters try very hard to get Milo — the protagonist — to pursue.
Every word is an absolute joy to read. Norton Juster achieves the kind of simplicity that comes at the cost of both knowing what exactly one wants to write and cutting away all superfluous material that does not achieve that goal. The entire novel is written in everyday prose fitting for a bedtime story, and yet contains layers of subtlety that should give the reading adult pause. Juster masterfully mixes serious lessons (that must not be obvious even to many adults, seeing how our world is) with hysterical moments of relief, all in a stream of whimsical adventure. Take, for example, the following scene:
Except for these, and the big brass cannon being pulled along behind, they all looked very much like the residents of any other small valley to which you’ve never been.
— The Phantom Tollbooth, page 146.
Paradox, absurdity, and humor, all wrapped into such a simple little description. Or take, for example, an unabashed jab Juster takes at the Humbug:
After demonstrating that there was nothing up his sleeves, in his hat, or behind his back, [the Mathemagician] wrote quickly:
4 + 9 – 2 x 16 + 1 ÷ 3 x 6 – 67 + 8 x 2 – 3 + 26 – 1 ÷ 34 + 3 ÷ 7 + 2 – 5 =
Then he looked up expectantly. “Seventeen!” The Humbug shouted, who always managed to be the first with the wrong answer.
— The Phantom Tollbooth, page 188.
The pages of this book are riddled with such perfect moments as these.
I’m sure that many compelling essays have been (or could be) written on the many social tendencies The Phantom Tollbooth chases after with the sharpest wit — getting lost in trivial tasks, becoming an arrogant and condescending specialist, or being too afraid to have your own thoughts, for example — but it suffices to say that The Phantom Tollbooth gives a looking glass into how our own world has banished its Rhyme and Reason. It is relevant even today, nearly 60 years after its original publication. But unlike the dystopias of its time, The Phantom Tollbooth is permeated with hope. And with what better weapon can one burn back the darkness?
“And remember also,” added the Princess of Sweet Rhyme, “that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you’ll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”
— The Phantom Tollbooth, page 234.