Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Month of Books: The Phantom Tollboth

There are books out there, really good books, that I have read and thought, "I could do that." It's not that I actually could write a book like that. (I am pretty sure that writing a book is on the list of Most Difficult Things, up near climbing Mt. Everest and licking your own elbow.)  It's just that the author has done something so natural, it is like a cleansing exhale.   Some authors just have a way of making the craft of storytelling look easy, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Then, there are books that I have read and thought, "This author is of a completely different species than myself.  If I wished to write a book like this, I would not even know where to begin." The Time Traveler's Wife is such a book.  And so is one of my lifelong favorites, The Phantom Tollbooth.

The Phantom Tollbooth is the story of a boy, Milo, who is bored.  No matter where he is, he wishes he was somewhere else.  Then, one day, he finds a cardboard tollbooth in his room, assembles it, drives through it, and enters another world entirely.  The plot is classic fairly tale: stubborn kings, lost princesses, a trusty sidekick.  Upon that classic tale, however, is layer upon beautiful layer of wordplay, extended metaphor and some truly original characters.

In one scene, Milo encounters the king's cabinet, a group of silly men who insist on listing every synonym for words spoken by the others.   When Milo questions this practice, one of the men replies that, "We're not interested in making sense; its not our job."  Sounds like a fairly accurate description of a politician to me.  When Milo departs from the cabinet's company, exhausted, his trusty Watchdog observes that words are only confusing when, "you use a lot to say a little".

This book was first published in 1961.  I probably read it for the first time sometime around 1993.  And now, in 2013, it still seems as wise and prescient as it ever did.  Which may be the very definition of a good book. 

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