photo & text by nacrowe
when i was in graduate school at TEACHERS COLLEGE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY pursuing my teaching degree there was an ENGLISH METHODS course near the end of which was kind of a culminating opportunity to showcase all you've learned and create a course outline of your own. essentially it was a class designed to force you to design a class.
as an ice-breaker on the first day the professor asked us to state our favorite book. seemed easy enough, this was a room full of aspiring ENGLISH teachers after all. people went on about different standouts of western literature by the likes of JAMES JOYCE, DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, VIRGINIA WOOLF, THOMAS PYNCHON, HERMAN MELVILLE, etc. i am certain you can guess the titles.
my response was THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH (EPSTEIN & CARROLL, 1961) by NORTON JUSTER. funnily enough the professor immediately turned to me and said something to the effect of how much she adored that book and how she had read it to all her children when they were young. that was my experience as well. i loved it when i read it in elementary school.
the plot surrounds a boy named MILO who gets swept up via a magical tollbooth to an ALTERNATE REALITY where he embarks on a fantasy adventure surrounding rescuing princesses and restoring a fantastical kingdom. for me the book is not so much about the plot, but about the transcemdent and magical implications of using LANGUAGE. it basically teaches kids about things like IDIOMS through MILO physically enacting them. there is an implicit interactivity with the text as countless parents, no doubt, took a moment to explain such meanings to their children. i would not say that the WORDPLAY is on the level of LEWIS CARROLL, who ultimately used symbols and words to both weave in and out of deep insights and nonsensical blathering with equal abandon and inventiveness. JUSTER instead uses the same template and VERNACULAR to create an alternate fantastical world surrounding LEARNING. THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH in this sense is a clever book about the nature of educating oneself and the challenges, pitfalls and rewards therein. the amount of great lines is astonishing, many of them centered around our limited perceptions of reality and how learning is a means of widening such:
in the book there are two kingdoms in this fantasy realm of which MILO is tasked with return the princess RHYME and REASON: one centered around words, DICTIONOPOLIS, and the other around numbers, DIGITOPOLIS. even at an early age i knew what side of that divide i was loyal to. for me at that time this book was not so much a narrative about learning, but a divining rod that let me identify that path which i knew i was destined to follow. for me words have always been about EXPRESSION and EXPLORATION. i thank JUSTER for helping me see that at an early age.
THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is an amazing book that should be read by everyone. no matter their age.
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