Although celebrated as an author, Norton Juster — who passed away at the age of 91 this week — was an architect by trade, having both a small firm and a long tenure on the academic side of the discipline. His most beloved novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, was in fact the outgrowth of a different, abandoned project that was closer to his expertise: a children’s book about the dazzling details and connections of the city. He channeled his growing disinterest in this idea toward a fantasy adventure tale that begins with a very bored young boy named Milo.
When I picked up The Phantom Tollbooth as a kid, I identified with Milo, and not only because this was the nickname by which my father called me. I recognized that boredom, too. The sense you have in childhood that there’s too much time, that it’ll be forever before you’re old enough to do anything truly interesting. But Milo’s ennui is interrupted by the unexplained arrival of a tollbooth in his apartment; he drives his toy car through it and is transported to a Kingdom of Wisdom, where ideas and emotions themselves form the landscape and bustling society.
It didn’t occur to me then how different this story was from the standard fare, particularly entertainment for boys. I got an action fix from cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, indulged an appetite for creepy horror with the novels of John Bellairs and of course loved pirates, superheroes and rampaging dinosaurs. In the years afterward, literature for young readers would hammer one way or another at the grandiosity of good versus evil, either in dystopian futures or a hidden realm of wizards and witches.
Now, in my 30s, I can see how little room there was in this noisy environment for quiet self-discovery, playfulness and intellectual challenge. The Phantom Tollbooth takes the shape of a quest, but Milo isn’t there to beat an ultimate bad guy. He’s journeying through the whys and wherefores of language, the surreal nature of numbers. He expands his awareness of art, rhetoric and physical phenomena.
Juster’s book is revered 60 years after its publication because, for so many, it marks the memorable starting point of a similar education. Milo is learning the fundamentals, but he is also learning how to learn, and about the missteps one is bound to make in the process. It’s the essence of what we call liberal arts. At a moment when reactionary forces look to gut the humanities and social sciences from schools and colleges, we can be all the more grateful for the holistic vision of The Phantom Tollbooth, where a schism arises from the disagreement of brother kings, one who prefers the absolute truth of mathematics and another who sees words as a superior expression of reality. Juster, with his engineering background, understood, as Milo soon does, that the sum of worldly perception relies on the interdependence of every last part. If you hive off STEM and devalue writing, music and history, you aren’t getting the full picture.
What’s more, Milo is the ideal protagonist for the sensitive and clever yet unmotivated mind. “I had been an odd child: quiet, introverted and moody,” Juster wrote in 2011. “Little was expected from me. Everyone left me alone to wander around inside my own head. When I grew up, I still felt like that puzzled kid — disconnected, disinterested and confused.”
The subject of mood is equally important to his masterpiece as the material lessons. Milo begins in a state of torpor and, at the start of his travels, is temporarily stuck in the Doldrums, a swamp of blandness and inactivity that feels like something close to depression. Later, he’ll meet the Humbug, a beetle-like creature whose contrarian and disagreeable nature often leaves him at cross-purposes with himself. Another character, the Dodecahedron, has 12 faces, and rotates his head to display varying sentiments. At one point, Milo eagerly jumps to an unfounded conclusion, with the result that he is literally teleported to a desert island called Conclusions.
The dangers of The Phantom Tollbooth are the real-life threats to common sense and civilizational progress: ignorance, insincerity and indifference. If you read it as a voyage into the imagination, then it is also Milo’s tour of his own consciousness, where he discovers the profound heights and depths of nature that exist behind a surface life he finds dull and ordinary. For a shy, often anxious kid like me, unsure how I fit into the universe, there could be no greater revelation than the sheer potential of a person just beginning to awaken.
At the end, Milo returns home, and the tollbooth disappears, preventing his return to the wondrous kingdom, but no matter, for he can finally see his usual surroundings with fresh eyes, noting the abstract and infinite range of things he missed before. In that, too, the novel stands apart and above others: It is not a question of evil vanquished or the adventure concluded, but a new phase of illumination, and the next step toward a destination never reached — for the winding path is all we have.