Monday, July 7, 2014

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)

Like many of my favorite children's classics, I've read and re-read The Phantom Tollbooth so many, many times that I can't remember a time when I wasn't familiar with it.  I think the genius of so many classics is that a re-read reveals new things about the book that you hadn't noticed the time before, reminds you of beloved things you may have forgotten, and lets you make new connections to books and ideas you've recently discovered or re-read recently.

What I noticed during this current re-read is how much The Phantom Tollbooth reminded me of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  The dreamlike state, the jumping abruptly from episode to episode, the mathematical and grammatical word play.  

Some great ideas from The Phantom Tollbooth:

The idea of starting over, from the mouth of the Mathemagician:  "I often find... that the best way to get from one place to another is to erase everything and begin again."  Oh, if only it were that easy!

On the difficulties of life, again from the Mathemagician (he gets good lines):  "You'll find... that the only thing you can do easily is be wrong and that's hardly worth the effort."

And my favorite line in the whole book, this time said by the brother kings Mathemagician and Azaz:  "So many things are possible as long as you don't know they are impossible."

Of course, Julies Feiffer's illustrations are classics.  I particularly have always loved the Soundkeeper; I don't know why.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've re-read this book so many, many times that I can't even remember not knowing what it was or what it was about.  The best books, whatever they may be or who they are written for, are eminently re-readable because a re-read reveals new things about the book that you hadn't noticed the time before, reminds you of beloved things you may have forgotten, and lets you make new connections to books and ideas you've recently discovered or re-read recently.  The Phantom Tollbooth resides in that statement, perfectly.  What I noticed this umpteenth time around was the the similarity to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass.  This may seem like a "well, duh" statement, but I hadn't paid that close attention to that aspect before.  A child's quest through a strange dreamland, the abrupt change of scenery and scene, the grammatical and mathematical puzzles.  A modern Alice - more so than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz which you could compare to the book as well.  I don't understand why anyone would dislike this book.  The illustrations, by the way, are memorable and wonderful; without the book is still good, but perhaps not great.


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