I’m still impressed by rainbows, and this despite knowing about light, and refraction, and the unlikelihood of the existence of pots of gold. I see a rainbow and my heart soars. And for me, if a rainbow ever fell to earth and became a book it would be The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster. It is a thing of light, and wonder, and beauty.
Which being the case, by far the most sensible course of action for you right now would be to stop reading this article, go and buy the book and start reading it instead.
Oh well, I suppose I’d better tell you some more. And seeing that I’ve started by singing the book’s praises maybe it’s time to mention the deeply annoying thing about it, or rather about its author. It’s that he was not even a real writer. He was an architect. In 1959 he just happened to start writing The Phantom Tollbooth as a way of distracting himself when he was bored with doing something else, the ‘something else’ in question being writing a book on Urban Planning and Perception.
To put this into perspective, imagine if Beethoven’s real job had been as a plumber, but he had decided to write his fifth symphony one day when he got bored with clearing yet another blocked U-bend. Obviously, while the world at large would rejoice at the existence of the symphony, every other composer working at the time would have been ever so slightly pissed off. As someone who, in the past, has tried to write books that make people both laugh and think, that’s exactly how I feel about Norton Juster. His book is so good that it’s not a case of me wishing I’d written it, more that I wish he hadn’t. He just set the bar too damned high.
The story starts with a boy called Milo who doesn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always. Wherever he is, he wishes he were somewhere else. Whatever he is doing, he wishes he were doing something else. As Milo goes on to explain, ‘It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time.’
And there we have it. Milo is an existentialist. But his is the universal existentialism of childhood. Sartre banged on about existentialism in tomes both impenetrable and depressing, but Norton Juster skewers the whole concept far more succinctly and accessibly when he says that Milo can’t see the point of ‘subtracting turnips from turnips’.
Juster then goes on to lay out the battlefield over which he intends to wage his war against meaninglessness when he states, of Milo, ‘he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all’.
All this is done in the first few pages, and accompanied by an elegantly simple picture of Milo drawn by Jules Feiffer who happened to be sharing an apartment with Norton Juster at the time he was writing the book. As the story unfolds, more illustrations crop up that are perfectly judged and that add an almost New Yorker-like visual wit to Milo’s journey.
And the story is, quite literally, a journey. It starts when a tollbooth magically appears in Milo’s room. With it is a note that invites him to travel to the ‘lands beyond’. As he’s got nothing better to do that afternoon he gets into his toy car and drives through the tollbooth. Once on the other side he finds himself in a strange and wonderful world. For a book aimed, supposedly, at children, it is not an unfamiliar conceit. After all, Alice fell down a rabbit hole, and Edmund and Lucy stepped out of a wardrobe, so Milo driving into his new world isn’t anything particularly original.
What is new is the world in which he finds himself – a place all of its own, of inverted logic, inspired word play, cracking jokes and more sublimely crafted philosophical insights than you can shake two sticks at.
For example, one of the first things Milo encounters is a sign that reads ‘WELCOME TO EXPECTATIONS’. When he asks a man who appears near the sign what kind of place Expectations is he gets the reply, ‘Expectations is the kind of place you must always go to before you get to where you’re going.’
In the context of the story that is a logical answer. But in the context of the wider world, it is also a deeply profound one. And the fact that the man giving the answer has been drawn as a short, plump, balding semi-lunatic in a toga makes the whole encounter delightfully comic too.
That Norton Juster can do so much, with so few words, is in itself a wonder. That he can sustain this level of inventiveness throughout the whole book is, frankly, incredible. Read any chapter and within it you will find more ideas than you can discover in whole books, or even series of books, written for children today.
Of course, for any book truly to capture a child’s imagination it helps if it has a strong narrative drive. The Phantom Tollbooth has such a drive. The place Milo has found himself in is the Kingdom of Wisdom. It lies between the Sea of Knowledge and the Mountains of Ignorance. Two cities, Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, dominate the land. But the Kingdom is in decline and disarray because the rulers of the two cities, Azaz who believes in words, and the Mathemagician who believes in numbers, have argued over whose belief is the most important, and have banished the princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Kingdom.
So Milo ends up on a quest that involves navigating through both Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, and braving the Mountains of Ignorance and the monsters who live there, in order to rescue Rhyme and Reason, and return them to the Kingdom of Wisdom. En route he picks up a select band of companions, including a watchdog called Tock, and encounters the likes of Chroma, the maestro who conducts sunrise; the twelve-faced Dodecahedron; and a self-proclaimed long-nosed, green-eyed, curly-haired, wide-mouthed, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, round-bodied, short-armed, bow-legged, big-footed monster. This last, being the demon of insincerity, is in fact ‘a small furry creature with very worried eyes and a rather sheepish grin’.
My personal favourite of all the people Milo meets is Alec Bings, a boy who floats three feet off the ground. As Alec explains, in his family everyone is born in the air with their head at the height they’re going to be when they are an adult, then they all grow towards the ground. Milo replies that in his family they all start on the ground and grow up. Alec scoffs at this:
What a silly system. Then your head keeps changing its height and you always see things in a different way. Why, when you’re fifteen things won’t look at all the way they did when you were ten, and at twenty everything will change again.
But if you want to get to the heart of why this book is a work of genius it is to Chapter 4 that you must turn. Indeed I could have written this whole article just about Chapter 4. That’s because it deals with Milo’s trip to the Word Market in Dictionopolis.
The Word Market is the place to which people come from all parts of the Kingdom to buy their words. One trader sells ifs and buts. Another deals in wheres and whens. Yet another tries to tempt Milo with ‘a nice bagful of pronouns’.
In the end Milo selects the three words that most appeal to him – ‘quagmire’, ‘flabbergast’ and ‘upholstery’. ‘He had no idea what they meant, but they looked very grand and elegant.’ However when he enquires as to their price he quickly puts them back. Disheartened, he even walks away from a stallholder trying to tempt him with a pound of ‘happys’ or a package of ‘goods’ that are ‘always handy for good morning, good afternoon, good evening and goodbye’.
Eventually, at the far end of the market, he comes across a stall with a sign on it that reads ‘DO IT YOURSELF’. On it are twenty-six bins filled with the letters of the alphabet. The trader whose stall it is explains that they’re for people who like to make their own words. Then he adds, ‘You can pick any assortment you like or buy a special box complete with all the letters, punctuation marks, and a book of instructions.’
It was when I first read this line that I truly fell in love with The Phantom Tollbooth. As someone who has made a living from words all his working life it seemed that this line both pointed towards the endless possibilities of the written word and simultaneously debunked the mystique with which the act of ‘writing’ has somehow become encrusted. From that moment on I have thought of myself as nothing more, but also nothing less, than a bloke who has been down the Word Market, bought a job-lot of letters, then spent his days trying to arrange them into an order that makes some kind of sense.
Having so inventively described the wonder of words, Norton Juster does the same for numbers when Milo’s quest takes him to Digitopolis. In this land where numbers rule Milo encounters the Mathemagician overseeing things in his numbers mine. Milo asks if the mine contains precious stones. The Mathemagician hands over a number five, calling it ‘as valuable a jewel as you’ll find anywhere’. He goes on to explain that he works all his numbers wizardry with his ‘magic staff ’. The staff is a big pencil with a rubber on the end and ‘once you learn how to use it, there’s no end to what you can do’.
In short Norton Juster makes maths fun. And he does so in a way that is infinitely witty – for example, by being witty about infinity. However my favourite part of Milo’s time in Digitopolis is the way in which the Mathemagician transports everyone from the mine to his workshop. He holds his wand above his head and, using the rubber to erase the scene, declares, ‘the best way to get from one place to another is to rub everything out and begin again’. Who could argue with that?
Here is a book that gloriously champions the importance of learning, that is clever, funny and outrageously enjoyable. It should be required reading for every child from the age of 9, and every parent of whatever age, in the land.
And since we have somehow ended up with a series of governments that seem to value education only in terms of how much it adds to an individual’s ability to earn money later on in life, perhaps it should be required reading for the Cabinet too. That is why I’m sending them a copy of it.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 29 © Rohan Candappa 2011