Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth
By Norton Juster

This was a "desperation book."

Let me explain. As a resident of a small town on a non-English speaking island in Asia, I rely on a variety of factors to get books in my hands. Whether it is trips to the big city, shipments from home, overseas orders or loans from friends, getting books is not as simple as walking into the local bookstore and finding my next read. As of the writing of this blog post, there are no English bookstores within 300 km of my house.

All is not entirely lost for this forgotten little town. I'm helping amass books for an English library in town. Great for the English readers in town, but not so much for me. A quick glance through the 800 books we have collected reveals that I have either read them or they are written by Sophie Kinsella or Stephanie Meyer. Sure, I get first crack at new donations, but donations are few and far between, and one has to fill the hours of reading between boxes of books. I don't care what you think. It will be a cold day in hell before I read Eat, Pray, Love.

Yeah, I know. I might be the quintessential target market for the Kindle or E-Reader. I could download books and never worry about availability. I know. It'll probably happen, but I'm resisting. I like the way books smell and feel. Until they can recreate the aroma and texture of the book, I'm staying with paper.

So anyway...

I keep a personal reading pile at home. It's a small shelf. I go through deluge and dearth. Sometimes I have 8-10 books on my shelf that I can't wait to read. Other times I have nothing on hand whatsoever. Currently I have three. Since I have a rule that I always start a book on the same day I finish one, book availability can be problematic. Case in point, The Phantom Tollbooth.

I finished my previous book rather unexpectedly a few days back. I was out of the house and wouldn't be back until late, but I wasn't busy (I like far enough out of town to make return trips home very inconvenient). I had a few hours to kill between classes and whatnot and I was completely want for something to read. Since the cereal boxes in my town are written in Chinese and I haven't seen an English newspaper in a 7-11 in a few years, I was caught in desperate measures.

I scanned through the books at the library. Absolutely nothing stood out to me as something I could sit down and read on a hot summer day. Try as I might, I could not muster the energy to open The Pickwick Papers or The World Is Flat. I wandered out of the library and into my classroom where I noticed a forgotten copy of The Phantom Tollbooth.

A student of mine had brought it in and asked if I had ever read it. I hadn't. He noted that it seemed good, but he had had a hard time understanding it as a second language learner. He has subsequently left it in class and gone on vacation for a couple of weeks, so I picked it up.

My rationale was that if The Phantom Tollbooth truly did suck, it was a quick read with illustrations along the way. I'd be through the book in no time, but it would take me long enough to get home and pick up one of the remaining books on my reading shelf (which is depleting at an alarming rate, I might add). A stopgap solution.

I should mention that I don't read a lot of children's fiction. Sure, I like Roald Dahl and Louis Sachar and I admit that I did love the Harry Potter series but I'm not one of those adults fixated on YA fiction. No arrested development here. I prefer a good Salman Rushdie to Redwall any day. But I'm no book snob. In desperate times, I'll read (almost) anything and I realize that YA fiction is an essential genre for instilling kids with the habit of reading (although I think the genre has wholly too many vampires). It just doesn't interest me anymore. Imagine that. YA fiction not suitable for old man. Shocking developments in cultural anthropology.

So I read The Phantom Tollbooth.

It's a book I probably should have read when I was younger, but it somehow snuck past me through my childhood and adolescence. It's the sort of book I would have devoured at the age of ten or eleven when I was reading in trees and eating grass. Lots of word play (maybe a bit too much Mr. Juster... I think you think kids know more than they actually do), some cool characters, a plot that rambles on unconcerned with tying up loose ends (what happened to Faintly Macabre?) and a hero named Milo (that's my dog's name!). It's also got some really nice illustrations by Jules Feiffer and a map. Books with maps are almost always awesome.

Do I recommend this book? If you are ten or eleven years-old and wear glasses and don't fit in at school and like reading a lot and really like The BFG and think puns are funny? Yes. If you aren't ten or eleven years-old and don't mistakingly wear your pajamas to school and enjoy going to work and prefer reading in armchairs and really liked Cloud Atlas and think irony is funny then you have probably read this book a few times under other names. It's not as good this time.

Sometimes, revisiting your childhood makes you realize why growing up was actually a pretty cool thing after all.

Nice book. No thanks.


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