I was in the sixth grade and my teacher had just decided that she wanted to read a book to our class. Her choice, “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster, ended up changing my life, the way I looked at books and how words could be used.
“The Phantom Tollbooth” tells the story of Milo, a little boy “who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.” He isn’t interested in school and “regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.”
Then, one day, a package arrives for him, addressed to Milo “WHO HAS PLENTY OF TIME,” and he opens it to find a tollbooth to be assembled at home “for use by those who have never traveled in lands beyond.”
With nothing better to do, Milo assembles the tollbooth and heads off. He meets a watchdog named Tock, whose watch goes “tickticktick,” and a Humbug.
The two become his companions through the Lands Beyond, and Milo makes it his mission to rescue the banished Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason.
Eager for more after my teacher finished reading the first two chapters, I bought the book later that afternoon and finished it that evening. I had always loved to read but this was one of the first times a book’s world was at once completely new and familiar.
The Lands Beyond was a place where sunsets are conducted like symphonies, where sounds are collected like tangible items, where one can get stuck on the island of Conclusions forever. Milo’s quest for the banished princesses of Rhyme and Reason becomes a quest for knowledge as he makes mistakes and learns from them.
“It’s all how you look at things,” one character advises Milo. And, just like Milo, I felt like my eyes had been opened to a world of unending possibilities.
As I read the book, I felt like Milo’s journey to rescue the princesses somewhat reflected my own journey for knowledge, as cliched as that sounds. He makes so many mistakes but who doesn’t?
I used to feel — and still do, to some extent — like Milo, like I could get to my destination much sooner if I didn’t made so many mistakes.
When I expressed this feeling, I was often given some variation of the cliche: “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey that counts.” Milo is told something similar, but it meant more to me than any platitude ever did.
“You often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons,” Princess Reason tells him.
I wondered what it meant to be “wrong for the right reasons.” Who wants to be wrong? Nobody wants to make mistakes and feel like a fool, after all.
But I’ve learned more from all my mistakes than I ever have by being right. Life isn’t supposed to be completely figured out. We would have nowhere to go if we already knew everything.
“Remember … that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you’ll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”
Milo’s journey of discovery led me on my own. It may have been “just a children’s book” but it offered me a fresh look at literature.
Phrases like “eat your words” or “jumping to conclusions” took on a literal meaning in the Lands Beyond, where guests are served the speeches they made and jumping to conclusions meant jumping to the island of Conclusions, from which you can never jump away.
Juster’s treatment of words was unlike anything I had ever seen. He turned phrases I had heard for years into new ways of looking at the world; one little boy Milo comes across appears levitated in the air because instead of growing “up” he grows “down.”
He tells Milo that growing up means the way one sees the world changes constantly as one’s height changes. But that’s what “growing up” is all about; the way you look at things changes constantly as you learn and grow.
In the end, “The Phantom Tollbooth” is a book that contributed heavily to my love for words. The 26 letters of our alphabet offer us unending possibilities, and the words we use have so many varied meanings. With them, we have the power to make or break worlds, to create and destroy.
“So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.