It was in second grade that I decided to be a writer, which also happened to be the year my teacher read The Phantom Tollbooth in class. I can’t help but believe that these are connected, that the emergent symptoms of what would become my chronic infatuation with language were somehow picked up during this sojourn in Norton Juster’s joyously allegorical world.
It would in any case be safe to say that it was Juster (or perhaps Milo, his rather torpid hero) who diagnosed me. His words — enlivened, electrified, transmogrified into pun — made obvious and specific what I’d only guessed about language in general. Names alone were enough to send the imagination reeling: the Whether Man, Officer Short Shrift, Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord, the Terrible Trivium, Faintly Macabre, the Dyne, the Dodecahedron. TheTollbooth proved that words could have the qualities of characters; that they could be real places I could go, enter into and explore; that metaphors could be tangible; that objects had synesthetic qualities as true as those I could see.Words — like the absurdly literal “square meals” served by Digitopolis’s King Azaz — were themselves accessible to taste, touch and smell.
At the end of the year, my teacher gave me her copy of the book. She had marked a passage for me at the end:
Outside the window, there was so much to see, and hear, and touch — walks to take, hills to climb, caterpillars to watch as they strolled through the garden. There were voices to hear and conversations to listen to in wonder, and the special smell of each day. And, in the very room in which he sat, there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn’t know — music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real.
I still treasure this as, among other things, an artifact of what the world promised to an eight-year-old at the start of a love affair with the written word: it was a place that I recognized, but at the same time one somehow strange and mysterious and new. The Tollbooth’s world was the writer’s world, the world as it might be, but never quite is. Which is why, I imagine, we keep trying get there.