The Phantom Tollbooth

In the latest New York Review of Books (June 9), Michael Chabon celebrates The Phantom Tollbooth (1961, by Norton Juster, with illustrations by Jules Feiffer):

He writes about

venturing into a wonderful book, into a world made entirely of language, by language, about language.

(The essay “is drawn from Michael Chabon’s introduction to a fiftieth anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth that will be published by Knopf in October.”)

Chabon was bewitched by Dictionopolis and all the rest of the Tollbooth world as a child, while I came to it in my last years of college; the role that Tollbooth played for him in childhood was taken, roughly, by Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books (and the Oz books) for me. But it was a delight then. Chabon:

Maybe all wondrous books appear in our lives the way Milo’s tollbooth appears, an inexplicable gift, cast up by some curious chance that comes to feel, after we have finished and fallen in love with the book, like the workings of a secret purpose.

Feiffer’s map of the Tollbooth world, from the book’s flyleaf:

Milo gets lost in The Doldrums, where he finds a watchdog named Tock. Along the way he encounters

the arbitrary and diminutive apparatchik, Short Shrift; the kindly and feckless witch, Faintly Macabre; the posturing Humbug, and, of course, the Island of Conclusions, reachable only by jumping.

Yes, puns, but puns of a high order, puns that make the familiar strange. Such a pun “condenses unrelated, even opposing meanings”; such puns “operate to generate new meanings, outside and beyond themselves”. They take us to another world.

2 Responses to “The Phantom Tollbooth”

  1. Mathematician portmanteaus « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] … A character in The Phantom Tollbooth is known only as “The Mathemagician.” He rules over Digitopolis, the kingdom of numbers. [link] [...]

  2. Dawn Akemi Says:

    Ah, the much maligned pun. Yet, I love them so– one of my favorite forms of humor. The only book I own from my childhood is a crinkly-covered, yellowed-with-age The Phantom Tollbooth. I’m rereading it for the umpteenth time.

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