For Whom the Booth Tolls

Once upon a time, I was young (it’s true!). I was young but I thought I was relatively grown up, being in the sixth grade and all. Being in the sixth grade, I had a reading book, and in this reading book was a selection from The Phantom Tollbooth, which I dutifully read as it was assigned. Some year or two later, when it was not assigned, I came across the entirety of the book. And fell completely in love — a love that abides to this day.

I own, I think, three copies of the book. I’ve read and re-read all of them, even loaned them out. Once one went to my friend Mary, whose three stepchildren (the youngest of whom now has six or seven children of his own) were also entranced. They called it “The Phantom TL Booth.”

But in all this time, I realized only this morning, I never gave the author of this masterpiece much thought at all. No thought, really, and before we regard this as the ultimate dismissive insult, I would like to attempt to explain why I think it may instead be the highest compliment I could give Norton Juster, who died Monday at the age of 91.

First of all, until he died I did not know he was still alive. His wonderful book predates me by a year, arriving in 1961. I guess, if I stopped to think about it at all, I assumed it was written by a wise older man who presumably left the earthly plane some time ago. But it turns out he wrote a handful of other books, some of them relatively recently.

Usually when an author catches my fancy, I rush out to read anything else I can find, sometimes to great delight, occasionally to disappointment. But it never occurred to me, really, that The Phantom Tollbooth was written by an actual man who had other works I might want to read.

The world Mr. Juster created captivated me so thoroughly, I only now realize, a year or two after leaving sixth grade behind, that it was its own perfect encapsulation that never required anything else from without.

Tollbooth begins in just the right place, with Milo, a boy who is never happy and always wants to be doing what he is not. It leads him through a punful series of adventures in a magical kingdom that does not require one further iota of embellishment, and then it ends in exactly the right spot, Milo back in his own bedroom, only instead of a place of dreariness it has become rife with a world of possibilities. It’s not even sad that he can never go back to the Kingdom of Wisdom, because it was such a perfect adventure.

At least for me. I suppose someone somewhere read this book and didn’t like it, as is their prerogative, no matter how sad for them. And others read it and then went looking for other works by Mr. Juster, the next one of which he brought forth two years after his masterwork.

This is not my only favorite book. I have a small stash of about five books that I would label my favorites. A couple of them I keep there precisely because they were springboards to discovering many of the other works by their authors. None of them are as singular as The Phantom Tollbooth.

I re-read one of my copies of Tollbooth every few years, and I find that my perspective can change while the marvel of the book does not. Probably at about that same sixth-grade ageage I also read a series about “The Happy Hollisters,” and when I went back to re-read one of those, which I remembered quite fondly, it turned out to be dreadful. Not just bad; dreadful. Which further points out the perfection of Mr. Juster’s work.

Now, it’s quite possible I’m leading you all down a primrose path. This has happened to me, when someone enthusiastically recommends a work — book, play, movie, music — and it turns out I don’t love it as much as they did. So perhaps, inspired by my glowing testament to this book you will rush out and read a copy and you will think, Man, TL has really lost it. Or you will think, that’s cute, but not that special. Or maybe, That is a good book, but not the best book of all time.

Those are fine responses, and might not even crush me if you mention it to me personally. But for me, it’s the best book I’ve ever read, even on the re-reads. They made a movie out of it, which I think I tried watching once, but the movie is dated and doesn’t capture — could never capture — the world that plays out so clearly in my mind.

It was a perfect world that required no further exploration, not of additional works by the author, nor of the author himself. With the advent of his death, it my be time to rectify both those things. It’s a risk, though: what if his other books aren’t nearly so perfect and it makes me doubt the splendor of Tollbooth?

But it doesn’t hurt to learn a bit about the author, who turns out to be more than just a funny name on the way to the inside of the book.

Mr. Juster, a first-generation American, was born in 1929 in New York. He studied architecture, then enlisted in the Navy, where he got in trouble for writing his first children’s story, a satirical fairytale that was never published.

After the Navy he roomed with Jules Feiffer, who illustrated Tollbooth. In a 1999 reissue of the book, a copy I don’t own but certainly should, Mr. Juster wrote that he first thought of the book while working for an architectural firm in his late 20s. (Despite his book selling millions of copies, once his mother “terrorized” booksellers into putting it on display, he continued to work in architecture, like other members of his family.)

He was supposed, at the time, to be writing a book about urban planning, for which he had received a grant. He never got around to writing that one; no word on whether he had to give the grant back. One fateful day he overheard a boy ask his mother what the biggest number in the world was. We don’t know what the boy’s mother answered, but if you’ve read The Phantom Tollbooth you’ll know the correct answer.

So, from procrastination to perfection — that’s the sort of storyline I can buy into. Today it seems less bad than odd that I never gave a thought to the man who produced the story that has entranced me longer than all others, and only now that he’s gone do I realize he was here at all. That’s actually a very Tollboothian philosophy, and I hope Mr. Juster would understand.

One thought on “For Whom the Booth Tolls

  1. The Phantom Tollbooth comes into the thrift shop where I volunteer quite frequently! So it must mean it is still popular – or people liked it so much they are just now giving it away. I’ll have to read one next time as I never did when I was a kid.
    Though – I DID read ALL the Happy Hollisters and loved them. Sadly, I had the same feeling as you when I went back to revisit them – just before giving them away to a friend for her grandchildren. The HH’s we’re definitely a product of the 50’s!


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