The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Boredom wasn’t really a common element of my childhood. I was pretty good at amusing myself. There was the waitressing service I started with an old apron and dishes at my grandparents’ house. The Harry Potter dormitory conjured in my basement. The New Mexico casa (complete with adobe bread oven) and prairie log cabin set up in the garage for my various American Girl Dolls. The swords fashioned from wooden stakes and other knightly paraphernalia to complete my magical medieval kingdom. Clearly there was some wishful thinking at work here (and possibly a bit of delusion, though I blame this largely on eBay’s failure to provide me with a real sword). But boredom wasn’t usually invited to the party.
So I didn’t really have a lot in common with a bored, apathetic little boy named Milo. I followed along on his journey because some (in retrospect, brilliant) teacher assigned The Phantom Tollbooth as class reading. Somewhere along the road to Expectations, though, possibly between the Doldrums and the Island of Conclusions, I fell in love.
For those who haven’t read The Phantom Tollbooth, it’s the story of the chronically indifferent Milo, who receives a magic tollbooth and ends up in the Lands Beyond.He visits Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, the Forest of Sight and the Valley of Sound. He meets King Azaz and the Mathemagician, the Humbug and Tock the watchdog. In short, he hits pun and wordplay heaven.
Even for a certified nerd—which I was, even if I wasn’t yet able to declare it proudly—a book about learning seems a bit heavy-handed. But The Phantom Tollbooth was so charmingly zany and ridiculous that it was impossible to resist. What’s not to love about .58, the a-little-over-half boy from an “average” family of 2.58 children (has no one else ever thought those statistics sound bizarre)? Or the Senses Taker, who robs people of their senses by wasting their time with useless questions?
By now, the book is mostly a jumbled series of quirky characters floating around my head, provoking an indescribable sense of puzzlement and nostalgia as they pop up at the most random times. Half of the puns and references I don’t think I even understood when I first read the book.
But it seems that the imaginary creatures of The Phantom Tollbooth weasel their way out of the pages all the time to poke and prod at me. They’ve all taken up residence in some nebulous pot of nerdiness and curiosity and word infatuation. (I blame the book for at least a portion of my current word addiction). Clearly, I should be living in the Lands Beyond. Besides the obvious fact that I’m (unfortunately) without a magic tollbooth, however, the main difference between Milo and me is that he sets off into uncharted territory. I, on the other hand, seem to often take my cues from another character in the book: the Whether Man (that’s w-h-e-t-h-e-r, not weather).
At some point, I had the monologue of the Whether Man memorized. I could rattle it off on cue, probably racking up more words than I otherwise would have spoken all day. You have to read the entire nutty conversation to get the full ludicrous lovability of the Whether Man, but it went something like this:
Whether Man: My my my my my! Welcome, welcome welcome to the land of Expectations — to the land of Expectations! We don’t get many travelers these days — we certainly don’t get many travelers these days! Now what can I do for you? I’m the Whether Man! Do you think it will rain?
(to which Milo replies): But I thought you said you were the Weather Man.
Whether Man: Oh, no no no no no no no no no! I’m the WHETHER Man, not the Weather Man! For after all, it’s much more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be!
You get the gist.
I doubt I saw the suitability at the time of choosing this particular character’s words to store in my brain. In fact, I had forgotten about the poor guy until I hit Wikipedia to refresh my memory about the book. But I suddenly remembered repeating this convoluted little dialogue ad nauseam for a period sometime around elementary school. As it turns out, the Whether Man and I may be kindred spirits. We’re both useless when it comes to knowing when to pack an umbrella, but if you want to waffle over the decision all day, we’ve got you covered.
The Whether Man, the caretaker of Expectations, spends all of his time pondering what could be and why and never ends up doing anything. As for me, call me the Queen of Indecision and Overthinking.
Overthinking doesn’t seem to be a problem for Milo, but it seems that maybe both the Whether Man and I could learn something from him. Milo may be apathetic, but at least he’s willing to go for it and set off on an adventure without really knowing where he’s going or what he’s doing.
As it turns out, it’s always worthwhile to venture into the Lands Beyond. You never know, you might find Rhyme and Reason. Follow the road to Expectations, and you might end up in the Doldrums, but you might find yourself in the Kingdom of Wisdom. Either way, you may not find the right road to where you’re going, but as the Whether Man notes, you’re bound to find the right road to somewhere, and that somewhere might just offer the adventure of a lifetime.
Excuse me, I have to go to the word market now. “Superfluous” is on sale.
—If Andie Davidson had her own personal Room of Requirement, it would likely be filled with coffee, chocolate, and books. An English major and French minor at the University of Pennsylvania, she is a grammar freak and nearly-certifiable shopaholic. In between exploring (or wandering, as her friends would call it) and searching for Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, she can usually be found reading, making up stories in her head, or overusing parentheses.