'The Phantom Tollbooth' - Book Review

The Phantom Tollbooth
by Norton Juster

I grew up with this book, and for many years (far into adulthood) I re-read it yearly. Norton Juster was in the Civil Engineer Corps in the military, and an architect for most of his life. (I was sorry to learn while writing this in September of 2021 that Juster had died in March of this year). He became friends with Jules Feiffer when he was young, so it made sense that Feiffer illustrated his children's book when he wrote it.

The book is about Milo, a young boy bored with his entire life. The titular tollbooth is mysteriously gifted to him, and transports him to another world where he has all kinds of strange adventures that inspire him to be more interested in the world around him.

Juster indulges in ridiculous and excessive wordplay (Milo meets both a "Whether Man" and a "Which," but that's just the beginning), poking fun at our language and our world. And yet somehow it's not excessive: it's hilariously funny and charming and inspiring, and probably a major influence on my life-long interest in the English language.

It's a wonderful paean in praise of enjoying the world around you, appreciating its complexity, continuing to learn, and being excited about the learning process. And the book sells the idea beautifully, without being heavy-handed about it. My favourite quote at Wikipedia is from novelist Cathleen Schine (who I'm not familiar with): "it was as if someone had turned on the lights. The concepts of irony, of double entendre, of words as play, of the pleasure and inevitability of intellectual absurdity, were suddenly accessible to me. They made sense to me in an extremely personal way."