Michael Chabon has written a special introduction for the fiftieth anniversary edition of Norman Juster's wonderful, classic kids' book The Phantom Tollbooth. As you might expect, it's a lovely piece of work.
'The Phantom Tollbooth' and the Wonder of Words (Thanks, Zack!)
I am the son and grandson of helpless, hardcore, inveterate punsters, and when I got to Milo getting lost in The Doldrums where he found a (strictly analog) watchdog named Tock, it was probably already too late for me. I was gone on the book, riddled like a body in a crossfire by its ceaseless barrage of wordplay--the arbitrary and diminutive apparatchik, Short Shrift; the kindly and feckless witch, Faintly Macabre; the posturing Humbug, and, of course, the Island of Conclusions, reachable only by jumping. Puns--the word's origin, like the name of some pagan god, remains unexplained by etymologists--are derided, booed, apologized for.
When my father and grandfather committed acts of punmanship they were often, generally by the women at the table or in the car with them, begged if not ordered to cease at once. "Every time I see you," my grandfather liked to tell me, grinning, during the days of my growth spurt, "you grusomer!" Maybe puns are a guy thing; I don't know. I can't see how anybody who claims to love language can fail to marvel at the beautiful slipperiness of meaning that puns, like aquarium nets, momentarily catch and bring shimmering to the surface. Puns act to shatter or at least compromise meaning; a pun condenses unrelated, even opposing meanings, like a collapsing dwarf star, into a singularity. Maybe it's this antisemantic vandalism that leads so many people to shun and revile them.
And yet I would argue--and it's a lesson I learned first from my grandfather and father and then in the pages of The Phantom Tollbooth--that puns, in fact, operate to generate new meanings, outside and beyond themselves. Anyone who jumps to conclusions, as to the island of Conclusions, is liable to find himself isolated, alone, unable to reconnect easily with the former texture and personages of his life. Without the punning island first charted by Norton Juster, we might not understand the full importance of maintaining a cautionary distance toward the act of jumping to conclusions, as Mr. Juster implicitly recommends.