Wednesday, March 5, 2014

It Found Me

  Creative Commons License 2.0, by Philip Halling
Creative Commons License 2.0, by Philip Halling
It happened one day when I was cleaning my room.

I was hunched over on my knees, stretching my arm as far as it would go under the metal frame of the bunk bed. I had worked up a steady rhythm of pulling out wrinkled book reports from third grade, discarded Legos and ancient doodles I had done on notebook paper. Then, suddenly, my exploring fingers found a book -- a tattered old thing, decades old; the pages were yellow and the cheap, silvery cover was hanging off by a couple threads. "The Phantom Tollbooth," it read. I flipped open to a random page.

There I came across a boy named Milo, who was conversing with a Spelling Bee -- a huge, talking bee that spelled words as he said them -- in the middle of a market where words were sold. I was hooked. I could not put that book down until I had read until the very end, even though I hadn't even read the beginning yet.

It turns out that the specific copy I had found belonged to my dad when he was a kid. He had taken the liberty to annotate each illustration with his own commentaries, naming the uglier characters after people he didn't like at school and adding sassy speech bubbles where he felt they were needed. (No other copy I have ever read has had the same magic to it, sadly.) 

I enjoyed the puns, the literal interpretations of idioms and the constant wordplay which kept me chuckling the whole ride through. But the reason why The Phantom Tollbooth has been my favorite book for more than a decade is because of the way it brought me to a magical new world where I, like Milo, learned to appreciate the little things in life. At the beginning, Milo is described as “a boy who didn't know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always.” Milo always wished he were somewhere else and didn't see the point in doing anything or going anywhere.

“'It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time,' [Milo] remarked one day as he walked dejectedly home from school. 'I can't see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February.' And, since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.”

What I didn't realize when I was a young boy was that Milo is meant to be a canvas, a projection of the reader and a symbol for all of mankind, because every one of us (with only a few happy exceptions) fits his description at some time or another in our lives. Fortunately for him – and, vicariously, for us – Milo is rescued from his gloomy outlook by the arrival of a mysterious, purple build-it-yourself tollbooth in the mail which transports him to the wonderful Lands Beyond.

This book was my purple tollbooth. I needed it very badly.

The book is shamelessly didactic: characters embody aspects of real life (sound, color, perspective, dodecahedrons, etc.) and teach Milo about their domains. On one occasion Milo meets the Soundkeeper, a lady who is in charge of making sure that all the sounds in the world are appreciated and used properly. When he walks into her home he finds her listening intently to a gigantic radio set, which is currently playing nothing.

“'Isn't that lovely?' she sighed. 'It's my favorite program – fifteen minutes of silence – and after that there's a half hour of quiet and then an interlude of lull. Why, did you know that there are almost as many kinds of stillness as there are of sounds?'”

With dreamy nostalgia, she then describes the silence just before dawn, the quiet just after a storm, the hush of a country road at night, and the moment after the door closes and you're all alone in the house. “'Each one is different, you know,'” she said, “'and all very beautiful, if you listen carefully.'” I was shocked at this realization. We easily recognize the beauty and variety of sounds, but recognizing different types of silence requires a special sort of practice and perspective. The entire book is dedicated to helping people find that perspective, the ability to pay attention to the little, easily overlooked things in life and appreciate them for all their subtle beauty.

It wasn't until I reached college that I realized how relevant the book was to me, now that I'm in the rushed, busy, distracted lifestyle that The Phantom Tollbooth warns against. Along his path Milo meets Dr. Dischord, a crackpot doctor who “[specializes] in noise – all kinds – from the loudest to the softest, and from the slightly annoying to the terribly unpleasant.” Confused and annoyed at all the cacophony the Doctor proscribes to his unfortunate patients, Milo asks, with his hands over his ears, who would want all those terrible noises.

“'Everybody does,' said the surprised doctor; “they're very popular today […] Without them people would be very unhappy, so I make sure that they get as much as they want.” 

This realization was pretty humbling, I must admit, as I realized that he was describing me.

This book ripens with age (or perhaps it's me that's ripening): the lessons The Phantom Tollbooth teaches become more and more relevant as my life goes on. Too often, it seems, I need to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason from the demons of Ignorance in my own mind.

(Quotes are, of course, from The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.)


  1. This book has been on my to-read list for a long time now. This post motivated me to check it out from the library! There is a lot of whimsical, Lewis Carrol-like moments in this book that I could see becoming part of your final paper. Do you have any ideas for how you could compare the two texts?

    1. Since both works are (more or less) education stories, where a young person is submitted to a crazy quest, I was thinking of comparing the quality of their adventures somehow. I was also thinking of talking about the illustrations. Any suggestions? :)