Back Story, Life Lessons, Making a List

Five Things I Love About The Phantom Tollbooth

I’m not good at favorites. People ask, What’s your favorite movie/music/food? I can’t answer that. Not even close.


But ask me about my favorite book and not a moment’s hesitation: The PhantomTollbooth by Norton Juster. Not even close.

Here’s why:

  1. I loved it before I knew I loved it.  For as long as I can remember, I have had a promise to myself that I would look around when I walked. This was borne of the memory of a childhood story in which an entire city disappeared because no one paid it any attention. I was so horrified by this idea that I vowed I would always look up and around me. Years later I was reading The Phantom Tollbooth to my sons when I suddenly found myself reading that very story — there is was: the source of this lifelong commitment!  How can you not love a book that makes that kind of imprint?
  2. The map.  If you haven’t seen it, go find a copy of the book and just consider that map of The Lands Beyond for a while. Pure understated genius.
  3. Thinking about what it means to swim in the Sea of Knowledge and not get wet. The book is riddled with sly twists on old metaphors and turns of phrase.  It is a word geek’s paradise.  But if I had to choose, it’s the image of the Humbug swimming all the way across the Sea of Knowledge and not getting wet — that the lessons hadn’t penetrated — that I find most remarkable, and sadly familiar.
  4. The hero is a boy, but the saviors are women.  So maybe it is less true now, but when I was growing up most of the really interesting protagonists I read about were boys. That was just a given, and Milo was no exception. But the colossal, systemic dysfunction of the story is only resolved when the girls are back in charge. Yes, they’re demure, and thin, and probably blonde, but they are smarter than anyone else in the whole tale. And nothing works without them.
  5. The punch line. [spoiler alert!] “So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”  A Life Lesson if ever there were one.

But don’t let me spoil it for you. Go read it for yourself. Or better yet, read it to someone else.

15 thoughts on “Five Things I Love About The Phantom Tollbooth

    1. Yes. You will not regret it. I have returned to it more and more often, enjoying both its sophistication and its simplicity.


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