Book Review – The Phantom Tollbooth

Author: Norton Juster

Reviewer: Aditi Yadav

The best works of literature intrigue and inspire readers,transcendinggenerations and nationalities. The Phantom Tollbooth, written by Norton Juster in 1961, is a mind bending and heartwarming adventurous journey that challenges our understanding of human life -its objectives and perspectives. The protagonist is a little boy named Milo, who throws open a world of relevant and relatable questions as he thinks, “It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time.” Since he gets no satisfactory explanation to understand the purpose of “subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing, where Ethiopia is, or how to spell February”, the pursuit of knowledge strikes him as the greatest waste of time.

One fine day, he spots a strange package inside his room – a turnpike tollbooth, “for use by those who have never travelled in lands beyond.” Ready with his toy car, map and rule book, Milo sets off on an amusing roadtrip, which is sprightly evocative of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.His first pit-stop is the Land of Expectations where he meets the Whether Man, who like a crack-head philosopher chuckles, “Whether or not you find your own way, you’re bound to find some way. If you happen to find my way, please return it, as it was lost years ago.”

Juster’s penmanship is sprinkled with jest and wisdom. An architect by profession, he plays around with words and colloquial idioms, while flipping and flopping with mathematical fun. One is struck by this author extraordinaire – an adult in early 30s trying to make sense of life’s journey through the eyes of a child who is yet to discover himself and the world around him.This work is an enterprise in retrospect and an effort to change the prospective perspectives through the elements of fantasy. There is as much brightness and sensitivity in the plot as there is dark and raw humor – “Expectations is the place you must always go to before you get to where you’re going. Ofcourse, some people never go beyond expectations.” The book enthralls and educates.

It seems quite natural to see Milo lose his way into the ‘Doldrums’, where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes. It is inhabited by ‘Lethargarians’ who just live to kill and waste time. However, he is rescued by the Watchdog named Tock who accompanies him to ‘Dictionopolis’ , the land of words. Through a series of animated conversations and action packed sequences, Milo learns about the history and geography of the place. In the Land of Null, a young and enterprising prince had sailed into the Sea of Knowledge and founded the kingdom of Wisdom. One of his sons founded the city of words ,  “Dictionopolis” on the Foothills of confusion. The other son founded the city of numbers “Digitopolis”, in the Mountain of Ignorance. Their sisters Rhyme and Reason played a crucial role in settling quarrels between the two young kings. However, in an unfortunate warring situation, the sisters were banished to ‘Castle in the air’. Consequently,  the  old city of Wisdom had been decaying in chaos.

Milois now saddled with the Herculean task of bringing back the princesses. Among many challenges that Milo faces are the interpretations of Reality and Illusions, quite reminiscent of the soulful quote from The Little Prince, “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” He meets interesting characters like Chroma, Doctor of Dissonance and the Soundkeeper, who make him realize that the world needs to be seen, heard and observed for a holistic experience of life.He also encounters Dodecahedron and the Mathemagician who sharply jolt our memories- how uncomfortable it was for usas kids to be confronted with stark alien knowledge of tough lexicon and scientific concepts. Acquiring knowledge takes hard work and time.  The princesses are able to see a free world through Milo’s efforts, quite like how we try hard to free ourselves from the shackles of ignorance through interpretation of various streams of knowledge and experiences.

The Phantom Tollbooth is a trip we all must undertake once in a while, to rescue the ‘Rhyme and  Reason’ of our lives  and build bridges between our grow-up selves, the children we once were and our future selves.