Happy fiftieth, Phantom Tollbooth!

>> Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I could have missed it but for stumbling across a new article in The New Yorker: Adam Gopnik writing about the fiftieth birthday of The Phantom Tollbooth. Well, you should read the article. It's excellent, though my first reaction to it was to go over to Wikipedia to fact check the first paragraph because it didn't seem possible, somehow, that The Phantom Tollbooth is fifty years old; I mean that it doesn't seem possible in my heart, because my brain is perfectly capable of cogitating that a book about a boy driving an electric car through a mysteriously-delivered tollbooth must have been written at some point towards the latter end of the 20th Century, but in my heart the thing is as timeless as if it had been published in 1861, or 1761. Funny how that works.

I'm also faced with eating my words. This is my second reaction, after shock that The Phantom Tollbooth is really barely older than I am (it could be an older sibling); I've been pretty clear about a general distaste for allegory over the years and fond of quoting Tolkien on the matter ("...I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.") and here's an allegory I love, I adore though it's frankly been too many years since I picked up my much-worn copy (if I even still have it!) and turned through the pages. (Is it possible I'd be less enthused revisiting it now? I hope not!) I have to go back, anyway, and admit that I perhaps don't dislike allegory in all it's forms, being fond of it every now and then. I prefer, on this point, to think of myself as being human, not merely hypocritical, and cloaking myself in a favorite line from Emerson--"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds".

I seem to remember reading Tollbooth for the first time on a car trip, sitting in the backseat of whatever vehicle my parents owned at the time while we made the long and winding trip up to western Maryland to see family. I remember being especially entranced by The Dodecahedron (was I already playing Dungeons And Dragons; or did I recognize the shape of the gentleman's head from Carl Sagan's Cosmos? It might have been both, I can't recall anymore); by the watchdog, Tock; and by Jules Feiffer's brilliantly crude scribbled illustrations, wonderful artworks in their strangely, seemingly pseudo-inartistic way (Feiffer does such a brilliant job making things look casual and tossed-off, doesn't he?).

Whenever it was, it stuck. I still can't really use the phrase "jump to conclusions" without imagining a place, or hear about "an awful din" without thinking of the smoggy DYNNE, grandson of the dreadful RAUW (who perished in the silence epidemic of 1712). "Faintly Macabre" remains a catchphrase in my internal monologue to this late date, and "Short Shrift" still conjures a midget cop in my mind's eye.

And I still have this notion that if I look down too much, I'll miss everything, so I should almost never do it at all.

The funny thing is that if The Phantom Tollbooth is offering a pedagogical lesson, I don't think it was one I ever needed. I was a nerd kid, I didn't really need a book to tell me that learning was fun or that abstract knowledge was worth something. But maybe what I did learn from the thing was that cleverness was cool, although it would take me the many awkward aeons of my adolescence to get any real benefit from that lesson. Norton Juster was just possibly my first sustained exposure to wordplay, to a style of intellectual gaming that wasn't all about one-upmanship; a Martin Gardner puzzle (and bless Mr. Gardner, I'm not wanting to debase a wonderful man who loved knowing things) was often about a certain amount of showing off, of being smarter than anyone who took longer or couldn't suss it out because they were worse at math or missing some precious gem of scientific or mathematical trivia; Norton Juster's fractional kid, on the other hand, was just funny: so that's what having "2.58 children" means.

Thinking about it that way, it occurs to me that Juster may have primed me for Monty Python and Douglas Adams, which maybe seems weird, but what connects them all is a feel for smart absurdity (philosophers playing soccer is insanely funny because... well, it just is, it's funny because it's true, that's exactly what a soccer game between the German and Greek philosophers would look like if it ever happened, okay?). We all know that "eating your own words" is a figure of speech, or that "2.58 kids" doesn't mean that one of your children is a little bit more than half a child (and a little less than two-thirds of one) because that's not how averages work, but it's really just pure joy to think about those ideas in literal terms.

Thank you, a billion times over, Mr. Juster. And Mr. Feiffer, too. You guys made my world a lot better. Happy fiftieth, TPB, and many, many, many more.






3 comments:

David Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 3:31:00 PM EDT  

The Phantom Tollbooth is one of my all-time favorite books. I gave it to my oldest daughter when she was old enough to read it, and I just finished reading it to my younger daughter about three weeks ago. She keeps asking me if there is a sequel to it.

I'm always shocked to find people who've never read it - or, worse, have never heard of it (including some elementary school teachers I've talked with). How can this be?

Amazing book.

Eric Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 4:59:00 PM EDT  

Thank goodness Tollbooth was published before every property was a franchise and sequels were obligatory--it would have been such a hard act to follow and any sequel would have been doomed to disappoint. Besides which, isn't the sequel to Tollbooth practically every other book ever written about anything worth knowing for any reason whatsoever...?

David Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 6:13:00 PM EDT  

Why don't these comments come with a "like" button?

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