01 March 2011

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

 The story begins... "There was once a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself¬
not just sometimes, but always. When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered. Nothing really interested him ~ least of all the things that should have. "It seems to me that almost everything is a wast of time," he remarked one day as he walked dejectedly home from school. "I can't see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February." 
 The Phantom TollboothMilo was depressed. He just didn't see the point of anything. "Since no one bothered to                                              explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all." 

"As he and his unhappy thoughts hurried along (for while he was never anxious to be where he was going, he liked to get there as quickly as possible) it seemed a great wonder that the world, which was so large, could sometimes feel so small and empty." And then...after arriving home and going to his bedroom, Milo noticed a very large package. Upon it was an envelope with this written on it "FOR MILO, WHO HAS PLENTY OF TIME."

And thus begins the adventure for Milo and for readers of the book. The package held "ONE GENUINE TURNPIKE TOLLBOOTH". Oh, and there was a map included, as well as some coins for tolls and some precautionary signs (meant to be used in a precautionary fashion).

~~~I'll stop here for a moment. Do you like word play? If so, just get your hands on a copy of this book and read it and stop reading my review. If you aren't convinced to read it, read on...

Milo's journey would take him to places he'd never heard of and, quite frankly, he had a hard time believing even existed. Dictionopolis is "Beyond Expectations", or so Milo finds, as he is told that "Expectations is the place you must always go to before you get to where you're going." From there he finds himself stuck in "The Doldrums".

It would be appropriate to list the places Milo visits but it would likely divulge too much!
(I love that many are unable to tell when they've left "Illusions" and entered "Reality"!)

Upon meeting the Which, she explained to Milo why she was thrown into the dungeon. She told him that power corrupts. She was in charge of how words would be used and which words were appropriate in different circumstances. Her statements to protect words went from "Brevity is the Soul of Wit", in the beginning, to "Silence is Golden". At that point the market crashed; the economy was kaput; people were unhappy and she was thrown into the dungeon by King Azaz, as punishment.

The ruler of the Kingdom of Wisdom was King Azaz. His sons went forth to expand the Kingdom in the name of their father. At the Foothills of Confusion one built the city of Dictionopolis, The City of Words; in the Mountains of Ignorance the other son built Digitiopolis, The City of Numbers. Soon the two brothers became divided as each became convinced that their way was better. "Words are more important than wisdom" versus "Numbers are more important than wisdom".

The king was oblivious that his sons were growing apart; therefore his only regret was that he never had a daughter. Out strolling one day, he came upon an abandoned basket beneath a grape arbor; inside it were two tiny, beautiful babies. By him they were given the titles of "Princess of Sweet Rhyme" and "Princess of Pure Reason" and called "Rhyme" and "Reason".

Eventually the princesses were called upon to rule with regard to the disagreement between the princes as to whether words or numbers were more valuable. The princesses, in their wisdom ruled that "Words and numbers are of equal value, for, in the cloak of knowledge, one is warp and the other woof. It is not more important to count the sands than it is to name the stars. Therefore, let both kingdoms live in peace." The ruling was eagerly accepted by all...except the princes. The last thing they ever agreed upon was to banish the princesses to the Castle in the Air.

When Milo met King Azaz he found himself set upon a quest to rescue the princesses and return them to the Kingdom of Wisdom. Milo hadn't been given a chance to decline the opportunity.

Along the way Milo has this conversation that I love:
'"But why do only unimportant things?" asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them." "Think of all the trouble it saves," the man explained, and his face looked as if he'd be grinning an evil grin ~ if he could grin at all." "If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won't have the time. For there's always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing, and if it weren't for that dreadful magic staff, you'd never know how much time you were wasting."'

Later, upon reaching the Castle in the Air and finally having an opportunity to speak with the Princesses, Rhyme and Reason, Milo is mentally and physically exhausted. He expresses his dismay at the many mistakes he made along the way that kept them from arriving to rescue them as soon as they might have. The princesses explain that learning isn't nearly as important as what one does with what they've learned. Milo says "Many of the things I'm supposed to know seem so useless that I can't see the purpose in learning them at all." "You may not see it now," said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo's puzzled face, "but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way. Why, when a housefly flaps his wings, a breeze goes round the world; when a speck of dust falls to the ground, the entire planet weighs a little more; and when you stamp your foot, the earth moves slightly off its course. Whenever you laugh, gladness spreads like the ripples in a pond; and whenever you're sad, no one any where can be really happy. And it's much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer."

Before the end of the book though, King Azaz and The Mathemagician remind Milo that there was something Azaz promised to discuss with Milo after his return with Rhyme and Reason. '"It was impossible" said the king.' That's right. If Milo had been told his task would be impossible he'd have never attempted it. He discovered that "so many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible." And so we are all encouraged to reach the unattainable; to go where others have never gone. Life is only boring if you allow it to be.

And once again, the Princesses, Rhyme and Reason, reign in Wisdom.

(I've mentioned that I didn't read for pleasure as a child. How did this book come to my attention?
In the first place this is the case of judging a book by its cover. In this case, refuting the age-old idiom only worked to my advantage. Thank God for creative publishers. In the second place, the blurb won me over.

Our kids and I were visiting a library not long after we moved to the Chicago area; it was the spring of 2003. I read the book aloud to the two oldest of our (at the time) four children. I recently realized that it was the perfect book to read aloud with our 10 year old son, Matthew; we took turns reading aloud. I think he loved the book as much as I do. I don't reread many books; that alone speaks volumes with regard to my enjoyment of a book or how valuable I believe a book is.)

If you not only love reading but you also love words and art of creatively using them (and numbers) this book should find its way into your hands. 

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