The Book That Made Me a Reader

The Book That Made Me A Reader

James Hannaham: Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth


When I read The Phantom Tollbooth, at approximately age nine or so, it had some kind of bizarre cathartic effect on me. By that time I had probably started experimenting with puns, doubtless had been accused of having a corny sense of humor by my peers, and called a “brainiac” because I brought several books home from the library at a time. But even at nine I scorned conformity. Perhaps especially at nine. I remember feeling a deep sense of recognition and validation from that book, the discovery that somewhere out there lurked adult human beings who reveled in the same kind of smart alecky silliness and dark humor that I have never lost sight of since.

The entire reading experience of that story presupposes the reader’s receptiveness to wordplay: at the outset, we discover the main character is named Milo, perhaps because he does all the driving. He gets lost in a place called The Doldrums while killing time, which upsets the schedule-conscious Tock, aka the Watchdog, a canine with a giant clock embedded in his flank, who becomes Milo’s companion. While in a town called Dictionopolis, they encounter a Spelling Bee—a large insect, naturally!—and attend a banquet where people must literally eat their words. (I would still like to go to an event like that.)

Later they have to figure out how to get to an island called Conclusions, which they can only reach by jumping, and meet a man who doesn’t know his name, but is as many qualities “as can be,” and thereby earns the moniker Canby. Milo and Tock’s mission turns out to be to return a pair of princesses called Rhyme and Reason to a city called Wisdom, and to do so they must, among other things, outsmart a demon called the Senses Taker, who sets them to impossible, dreary tasks. I was in nerd heaven. I also don’t think that the book’s values were lost on me, since they were more or less embedded in every one of the stupid puns. I already loved reading and learning, and my mother and sister had certainly taught me to separate those concepts completely from the idea of school. The Phantom Tollbooth closed the deal by letting me know that nothing was more important than intellectual curiosity; that taking a car of unknown origin off to some weird imaginary land would always prove more exciting than enduring the humdrum of so-called real life.




 Photo credit: Ian Douglas


James Hannaham is the author of the novel God Says No, which was honored by the American Library Association. He holds an MFA from the Michener Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and lives in Brooklyn, where he teaches creative writing at the Pratt Institute.