Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Phantom Tollbooth - Norton Juster

Every once in a while, I get an overwhelming urge to return to the books of my childhood.  Nothing beats that nostalgic feeling when you return to a story you grew up on.  For me, The Phantom Tollbooth holds such a place in my heart.  My mom had a beat up old copy from when she was growing up that we read together.  For whatever reason, when I look back on my formative years, during which I did a lot of reading, most of my favorite books were ones that my mom had worn copies of from her childhood: The Chronicles of Narnia, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and others.  Realizing this now makes me so excited to be able to share my worn copies of books with my future children.  Yet another reason to buy the books I love and not settle for the e-reader version.  Someday, I hope my kids and I can curl up together and open that 50th anniversary edition of To Kill A Mockingbird that Kevin got me last year because the cover of my paperback version had torn and was generally falling apart.  Or, if I have a daughter, we'll pull out my box set of the Anne of Green Gables series.  Or we'll journey together down the road of any number of books I still have in boxes at my parents' house from my early years as a reader.  Or maybe they'll pull my mom's old copy of The Phantom Tollbooth from the shelf and join Milo on his journey through the Kingdom of Wisdom just as I have done multiple times over the years.

The beautiful thing about Tollbooth is that, just like early Pixar movies, it holds appeal for people of all ages. I loved this book as a child, but I think reading it now in my 20s has revealed so much more to me about the message of the book - things which apply to my life now more than ever.  When we meet Milo, the young protagonist of the tale, life has swept him into routine.  He hurries to get home, though without real reason to.  As Norton Juster puts it, "for while he was never anxious to be where he was going, he liked to get there as quickly as possible."  One day, upon returning home from school, he discovers a mysterious package containing a tollbooth and small car.  Milo, who has nothing better to do, sets them up and drives through the tollbooth.  Suddenly, he finds himself in an entirely different world, one which he will eventually discover is the Kingdom of Wisdom.

Early on, Milo, along with new companions Tock (a watchdog with an actual clock in his side) and the Humbug, is given the mission to bring back the banished princesses, Rhyme and Reason, from the Castle in the Air.  Their journey throughout Wisdom takes them to many fantastical places where they meet the most peculiar people and creatures.  They visit Dictionopolis, Digitopolis, the Doldrums, and the Mountains of Ignorance.  They meet King Azaz the Unabridged, the Spelling Bee, the Mathemagician, Chroma the Great who conducts the colors into the world, and many others.

Along with simply being delightful story-telling tools, every thing and every place and every person they little band encounters has been purposefully named and created by Juster to speak to the reader.  While it all may technically be classified as symbolism, one can hardly call it that since everything is named just what it represents.  For example, the first place Milo encounters upon coming through the Tollbooth is called Expectations.  The little man running the place has this to say about it: "Expectations is the place you must always go to before you get to where you're going.  Of course, some people never go beyond Expectations...."  This poignant statement lies simply in the midst of a short dialogue between Milo and this man.  To a child reader, the man is describing the location, but to an adult reader, he speaks strongly of a culture of dreams without action.  Little nuggets such as this are on practically every other page.  What may appear to be a simple adventure story for a young boy suddenly becomes a powerful commentary on our modern lifestyle.

Juster's interpretation of cultural dangers predict precisely what has come to pass, despite the fact he wrote Tollbooth in 1966.  In the introduction (yes, I read introductions. I had a delightful English teacher in high school who taught me, among other things, that books start at the cover, not at Chapter 1) which was written in 1996, Maurice Sendak tackles this very topic.
"The book treats, in fantastical terms, the dread problems of excessive specialization, lack of communication, conformity, cupidity, and all the alarming ills of our time.  Things have gone from bad to worse to ugly.  The dumbing down of America is proceeding apace.  Juster's allegorical monsters have become all too real."
Even Sendak, who had thirty years on Juster, could not have predicted the further growth of these issues in conjunction with technological revolutions such the Internet, smart phones, and others.  While these things cannot be blamed for the state of our culture, no one can argue that they have not played a role in making us who we are.

If you find yourself still struggling to accept the wisdom of Juster's tale, take a moment and think about the following lines from Tollbooth:

  • "I never knew words could be so confusing...Only when you use a lot to say a little"
  • "The only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that's hardly worth the effort."
  • "If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult.  You just won't have the time.  For there's always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing."
  • "You must never feel badly about making long as you take the trouble to learn from them.  For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons."
  • "But it's not just learning things that's important.  It's learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters."
  • "You had the courage to try; and what you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do."
  • "So many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible."

Those represent a few of my favorite lines pulled from the book.  I don't have time or space or energy to dissect them all, but I wanted to share them nonetheless.  Juster fits so much wisdom into his little adventure story; that is what makes it a classic.  In addition, Juster gives the reader my favorite thing: character development.  Nearly all of the prominent characters grow and mature along the way, Milo most of all.  After his adventure, he faces his own world with new enthusiasm and spends time enjoying the journey.

As I read through Tollbooth, I found myself hoping to learn many of the same lessons as Milo.  Too often, I am caught up in being busy.  Too often I am consumed with jobs that will ultimately be found useless and not focusing on jobs with eternal value.  Too often I allow fear or complacency to keep me from trying.  Being at a point in my life where I am desperately trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, Tollbooth was a deliciously presented reminder to enjoy each step as it comes and to not let life pass me by unnoticed or undervalued.

Do you have books from your childhood that you enjoy rereading every now and then?  What books do you  read with your kids or hope to read with potential future kids?  Do you love them because they appeal to all ages or having lasting wisdom or for another reason altogether?

Pages: 272
Date Completed: January 19, 2013

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