This week’s issue of The New Yorker features a lovely piece by Adam Gopnik about the 50th anniversary of Norton Juster’s classic children’s book “The Phantom Tollbooth.” The novel tells the story of a boy named Milo who finds himself on an adventure through the strange lands Digitopolis and Dictionopolis after he crosses through a mysterious tollbooth. As Milo journeys through the extraordinary lands, he learns and applies concepts about language, computation, thought, and philosophy.
You can read Gopnik’s story here. Pay particular attention to the last half-page or so, where he links the narrative of “The Phantom Tollbooth” to the experience of an undergraduate student…
“For ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ is not just a manifesto for learning; it is a manifesto for the liberal arts, for a liberal education, and even for the liberal-arts college,” he writes. “Against those who worried that the liberal arts could not help us ‘win the future.’ Juster argued for the love of knowledge, and against narrow specialization. ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ was for learning, against usefulness.”
The firs time I read “The Phantom Tollbooth,” I was eleven years old. My sixth grade English teacher carefully led the class through the novel, and we learned all about similes and metaphors and alliteration and plays on words. Juster’s fantastical land of eaten words (crunchy C’s, juicy G’s, and sawdusty Z’s) and cars that run on silence (they “go without saying”) was my first experience with flexible, playful language – I was hooked.
I reread the book this summer. I still love the way that Juster tugs at words and nudges phrases into subtle jokes, but I was particularly struck by the poignancy of the narrative. Ten years after my first trip through the tollbooth, I noticed an entirely new set of lessons to be learned from the journey.
These are a few of my favorite passages from the novel:
— “What kind of a place is Expectations?” inquired Milo. “Good question, good question,” the man exclaimed. “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, but my job is to hurry them along whether they like it or not.”
— “You’re on the Island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You’re apt to be here for awhile,” said Canby. “But how did we get here?” asked Milo, who was still a bit puzzled by being there at all. “You jumped, of course,” explained Canby. “That’s the way most everyone gets here. It’s really quite simple: every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not. It’s such an easy trip to make that I’ve been here hundreds of times.”
— “Well,” said Alec, “in my family everyone is born in the air, with his head at exactly the height it’s going to be when he’s an adult, and then we all grow toward the ground. When we’re fully grown up or, as you can see, grown down, our feet finally touch. Of course, there are a few of us whose feet never reach the ground no matter how old we get, but I suppose it’s the same in every family.”
“Oh,” said Milo seriously. “In my family we all start on the ground and grow up, and we never know how far until we actually get there.”
“What a silly system.” The boy laughed. “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.”
“I suppose so,” replied Milo, for he had never really thought about the matter.