Michelle Isenhoff

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, 1961, Book Review

This book gets the highest rating I’ve ever given a book I didn’t finish. What I mean is the writing was phenomenal, but the story was boring. Did you get that? Let me explain:
Mr. Juster is a master of language. Every sentence is a work of art. He has a quirky roundabout style that tucks the tail into the head, making each thought a complete circle. This makes you think, then it makes you smile. I think I’ll have to show you what I mean.

“For, while it was not quite square, it was definitely not round, and for its size it was larger than almost any other big package of smaller dimension that he’d ever seen.”

“I’m the Whether Man, not the Weather Man, for after all it’s more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be.”

“But we never choose which ones (words) to use…for as long as they mean what they mean to mean we don’t care if they make sense or nonsense.”

The book is absolutely crammed full of such well-packaged nonsense. The plays on words remind me greatly of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So does the plot–not too much actually happens. Oh, Milo gets a magic tollbooth that carries him to an imaginary land, but the story is more of an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress (which I never have been able to finish either) than an actual adventure. It even has the same type of instructional tone, though it is not religious. First Milo is on his way to Dictionopolis but gets sidetracked in the Doldrums, where it is illegal to do anything but waste time. There he meets Tick the Watchdog (he actually has a clock for a body with an alarm that goes off at inopportune moments). The job of a Watchdog is to guard against the wastage of time:

“You see…once there was no time at all, and people found it very inconvenient. They never knew whether they were eating lunch or dinner, and they were always missing trains…When they began to count all the time that was available..it seemed as if there was much more than could ever be used. ‘If there’s so much of it, it couldn’t be very valuable,’ was the general opinion…People wasted it…Then we were given the job of seeing that no one wasted time again.” (See what I mean about the not-too-subtle instruction?)

In Dictionopolis, life is all about words. Milo has to eat his words, he’s given a gift of words, and people waste words. Words also land him in prison. “You can get him in a lot of trouble mixing up words.” Then he’s sent to Digitopolis, where numbers are of vast importance, but Milo gets sidetracked on the scenic route by Point of View. There he meets a boy who floats above the ground. You see, he was born with his head at the height it would be when he’s grown and his legs grown down. His point of view never changes. When Milo explains his own growth, the boy comments, “Then your head keeps changing its height and you always see things in a different way? Why, when you’re fifteen things won’t look at all the way they did when you were ten, and at twenty everything will change again.”
See? It’s cleverly written. But about the time Milo visited the invisible city of Reality (it’s much more difficult to see than the city of Illusions, which isn’t really there), I started getting quite bored with the book. Oh, yeah, I’m not crazy about the 60’s cover and interior art, either.  So I put it down and commenced writing this most glowing review I’ve ever done for a book I did not finish.  I’d put The Phantom Tollbooth at a fourth or fifth grade level, but I fear quite a few kids wouldn’t be able to stick this one out, either.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, 1961, Book Review

10 thoughts on “The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, 1961, Book Review

  1. To me, it sounds interesting. I like the idea of the “point of view” place where people always have the same perspective. I also like the play on words in the book. I may give this one a try if I have some time… (maybe after 20000 leagues hee hee) but it says a lot if you didn’t even get through it 😉

    1. The word plays are entertaining. The thing I didn’t like was that lack of a regular plot, like Alice in Wonderland. But you really like Alice, so you may stick this one out better than me. But if you have to get through 20,000 Leagues first… 🙂

  2. I had the same experience with The Phantom Tollbooth, but my wife absolutely adores it and has read it multiple times. Have you read his brilliant adult picture book, The Line and Dot?

  3. I have never picked this one up. I have heard from people that it is amazing. I like that you pointed out what you liked about the writing and the story. Great review!

  4. This was the very first book I reviewed as a reporter for a newspaper. I liked the book, but have forgotten so much about it now. Juster must have done something right, because the book has stood the test of time — and sales.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to top