“You can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge and still come out completely dry. Most people do.“
As a young kid I became enchanted by the 1970 film adaptation of Norton Juster’s 1961 novel The Phantom Tollbooth. This was the time I fell in love with main characters Milo and Tock as they battle impending boredom and found new companionship in those they met along the way in their journey to rescue princesses Rhyme & Reason from the Castle in the Air. There’s many themes and motifs that reflect thoughtful personal humor at direct odds with Milo’s early discomfiture that comes from the monotony inhabiting his daily routine. Watching the 50-year-old animated movie sparked a curiosity for the book, and I would say there’s been no regrets since reading it (twice). This book is nothing short of awesome.
This story is told and unfolds in a uniquely captivating way. It feels like no time has passed at all before the reader finds themselves caring about not only the main characters with verve, but peripheral ones, too. This Brooklyn native, an architect by trade, produced a simultaneously powerful and imprinting story with inspirations from his own upbringing—like learning how to love learning. I highly recommend picking up your own copy, since it would be most likely cheap from any bookstore now. It’s binge-worthy and will provide excellent content to occupy your time during quarantine—better than any almost any Netflix special. Let’s jump into The Phantom Tollbooth:
The story launches from an appropriately unimaginative focal point: with a hopelessly bored and disinterested Milo—who is convinced that nothing special ever happens or that anything is worth doing. He believes that inquiring about the world around him is not worth the energy of breaching the fetters of his own imagination. One reason I personally like this book is that it placates some of my own insecurities and encourages the pursuit discovery while recognizing intellectual growth and change. Learning to love learning.
Jumping from this beginning, Milo receives an unexpected package one day—an invitation. The package then miraculously transforms into a tollbooth, and Milo makes his way through the portal in an electric car. After passing through the threshold Milo becomes lost in a new world, and embarks on a journey with his new found companion, Tock—a dog with a clock who teaches Milo that time is too precious to waste away.
Themes in this book include education (music, philosophy, language and perspective), common sense, and emotional strength. Themes are hidden under the surface yet ubiquitous. Education and its value are the most strongly reinforced through the book with a manifold of interactions. The dynamic of two kings, one of which sending Milo on a journey to recover Rhyme and Reason (subtle, right?), teaches the reader that both words and numbers are crucial to becoming wise. With characters like The Mathematician, The Dodecahedron, and Half Boy, the reader can passively absorb lessons of math through engaging with different and unique versions of what Milo wants to escape in his monotonous routine. The second operative theme in the book is the idea that there exists different perspectives other than our own. The book is essentially telling us to open our minds and embrace not only new challenges in life, but relationships with ones self. Sometimes it’s difficult to realize that this is water after all.
Honorable mentions of the novel include characters like the Whether Man, Dr. Dischord with the Awful Dynne, and Chroma—each offering Milo a new perspective on life that shakes up the way his daily routine will be for the rest of his life.
This is undoubtedly my favorite novel of all time. We can have another conversation about the best novel, but I believe this one is my number one. The nostalgia, the accessibility, and the fact that I read it in my more formative years makes this a book I’ll have until I die—and even after that. I strongly encourages anyone to pick up this book. The lessons are obviously timeless and the story is uniquely brilliant, written with thoughtful whit and charming brevity. The characters are lovable and necessary. Pick up your copy of The Phantom Tollbooth and/or watch the movie during your quarantine; it’s a hidden gem that will hopefully enchant you enough to pass it on once you’re finished.