In The Phantom Tollbooth, each new experience makes funny and concrete some familiar idea or turn of speech: Milo jumps to Conclusions, a crowded island; grows drowsy in the Doldrums; and finds that you can swim in the Sea of Knowledge for hours and not get wet. The book is made magical by Juster’s and Feiffer’s gift for transforming abstract philosophical ideas into unforgettable images. The thinnest fat man in the world turns out to be the fattest thin man; we see them both. We meet the fractional boy, divided in the middle of his smile, who is the “.58 child” in the average American family of 2.58 children. The tone of the book is at once antic and professorial, as if a very smart middle-aged academic were working his way through an absurd and elaborate parable for his kids.
I don’t know about you, but Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth was an essential, constantly re-read classic of my childhood. Initially recommended by my friend Elise — probably at the age of eight, during our regular reading sessions on the bus ride to school — I immediately fell prey to its ridiculous puns and abstract concepts, drinking them in over and over again. Finding out that the book is fifty years old this year was a bit of a shock, since it seems to exist outside time. The New Yorker interviewed Norton Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer (his Brooklyn Heights neighbor during the 1950s) for the occasion. It’s a great read on the timeliness of the book’s birth and the merits of a liberal education.
Also, how was I not aware that Juster was also responsible for The Dot and the Line? So magical.