Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Phantom Tollbooth

James Wood is a friend who we see every year at the American Chesterton Society conference up in St. Paul, Minnesota. He teaches math at a prestigious boys school back east and is a fascinating fellow with wide interests, strong Christian principles and a zestful enthusiasm for life. This time around, James shared with me a reading/discussion project recently instituted at his school in which the instructors each select three books to offer the students. The boys select a few of the presented titles to read over the summer break and then participate in discussions with the teachers over those books on special days during the school year.

James' choices were The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton, the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle and The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster.

Now the first two seemed to be great choices for the project as James had outlined it to me -- I'm a big fan of both GKC and Doyle and I thought his recommendations were terrific for not only inspiring young readers but introducing them to writers who can certainly become lifelong friends. But I couldn't remember ever having heard of his third choice.

I had heard of another of Juster's books, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and although I had never read it, the book had inspired an animated film that I'm pretty sure was presented in one of my high school classes. The Oscar-winning film, by the way, was directed by Chuck Jones, the same genius who was behind Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes cartoons.

But The Phantom Tollbooth? I now understand that it is a deeply-loved classic to many, many people, but when he mentioned it to me in St. Paul, I was completely in the dark about it.

James wisely didn't try to explain the purpose or the plot of the book to me. Instead he whetted my interest by merely smiling slyly and saying, "It is the most Chestertonian book ever written...that wasn't written by Chesterton!"

Well, that was enough to put The Phantom Tollbooth on the top tier of "Books I've Got to Get Around to Reading Pretty Quick" list and, after a finishing a few other projects, I've now read it.

I'm absolutely delighted I did.

I'm strongly tempted to limit my recommendation in this post to the enigmatic, alluring line that James used on me but no...I'll give you a little bit more. The Phantom Tollbooth (illustrated by Jules Feiffer) is an example of that splendid type of fiction that is for children and for those adults who retain an appreciation for the simplicity, beauty and strength that sparkle in the best of "children's stories." It is a rich tale about learning and the application of knowledge; cleverly and humorously written; full of word play, inside jokes, and Chestertonian paradox. Furthermore, The Phantom Tollbooth is about adventure of the most exciting and beneficial kind -- the thrilling discovery that the treasures of truth and virtue can indeed be ours.

The Phantom Tollbooth is a charming story and I can truly recommend it with enthusiasm. However, I must warn you that it is a book you will not be able to read and put away. Like Chesterton, Doyle, Thurber, Dumas, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Watership Down or The Wind in the Willows...The Phantom Tollbooth will be literature that you must read again and again.

Other books by Juster include Alberic the Wise and Other Stories (1965); Stark Naked: A Paranormal Odyssey (1969); Otter Nonsense (1982); and The Hello, Goodbye Window (2005). Juster has also produced a couple of books quite different in form from his others: So Sweet to Labor: Rural Women in America 1865-1895 (editor) (1979) and A Woman's Place: Yesterday's Women in Rural America (1996).

And one more item -- The Phantom Tollbooth spawned an animated movie back in 1970 that was written, produced and directed again by Chuck Jones. The film also features the incomparable voice talents of Mel Blanc as well as those of Hans Conried, Butch Patrick, Cliff Norton and, especially dear to fans of Stan Freberg, Daws Butler and June Foray.

James, thanks so much for the tip!