Michael Chabon's introduction to The Phantom Tollbooth 50th anniversary edition

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.

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.

'The Phantom Tollbooth' and the Wonder of Words (Thanks, Zack!)


  1. What a great book. I still remember the whetherman, who only told you whether there’d be weather. I need to go find a copy and re-read it.

  2. That’d be Norton Juster, not Norman.

    This is one of my favourite books of all time and has encouraged my lifelong love of absurdity. Such a mindbending but good-natured book.

  3. Favorite book ever. I’ve used it as a basis for a paper on linguistics, as well as foisting it on many unsuspecting friends. It’s hard to believe that it’s been out for 50 years.

  4. Whilst tidying up last week I found the battered copy of the Puffin paperback edition that my parents bought me when I was eight or so. The spine is cracked and the pages are yellowed, but dammit, finding it again brought a lump to my throat. Every kid deserves to have read this, or had it read to them.

    There was an animated film, too. Butch Patrick (yes, Eddie off The Munsters) played Milo.

  5. I still have copy of the old Chuck Jones movie they made, and it seems like they’re working on another movie now.

  6. Add my name to the list of people who just LOVED this book…..I really am looking forward to reading it again.

  7. “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. His thoughts darted eagerly about as everything looked new–and worth trying.

    ‘Well, I would like to make another trip,’ he said, jumping to his feet; ‘but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time. There’s just so much to do right here.'”

  8. Wonderful. I reread the book just last year, and I think it’s actually grown better with my age. I even ended up naming a solo music project The Awful Dynne.

  9. Puns are *not* a “guy thing.” Groaning and begging a punster to cease and desist is the traditional and appropriate response to puns.

  10. Haven’t read this in years – we read it to the kids when they were younger. Hmmm it must be around here somewhere…

  11. No book has brought me as much joy as this one. Though I was already a voracious reader at the age of 12, when I discovered it, I have the feeling that any time I pick up anything to read, anything at all, my mind is seeking the rush of ecstasy I experienced reading with my flashlight underneath the covers, unable to stop.

    Any time I meet someone new I develop a relationship with, any time I make a friend with a parent of younger children, I give them a copy of this. I’m sure I’m in the triple digits by now.

  12. A bad pun is usually ignored but a good pun is the one that gets you “groans”. The reason; the groaner is jealous they didn’t come up with said pun themselves.

  13. Good enough for Shakespeare, good enough for Pratchett, good enough for me. Always have been.

    “Magrat says a broomstick is one of them sexual metaphor things.” (Although this is a phallusy.)

  14. I love this book as a kid and kept a well-worn copy into adulthood.

    A girlfriend at the time saw my battered loved copy and decided to do something nice.

    She bought a new hardback version, snail-mailed it to Norman Juster and asked for his autograph (explaining what she was doing). He sent a nice note back & autographed the copy.

    I have that copy to this day (along with a reading copy) even though the girl is long gone.

    I did not know that there was an animated film version. I wonder if i dare watch it?

    Anyway, I know. No one cares. Still nice to see this post.

  15. Love it! Currently in the middle of reading it to my four-year-old, with much of it going over his head of course. Yet, he is still loving it and keeps coming back to me with bits and pieces of it that stick with him. I figured I would get him going on this one earlier so that he could enjoy the layers of humor in it as he revisits it over the years…

    1. Named my son Milo because of this book.

      As did I, entirely because of this book. He’s 20 months old now. Can’t wait to read it to him!

      My older sister read it to me when I was around four. It was a first edition that she had when she was a kid (she’s about 15 years older than I am). I kept that copy for years, but a girlfriend borrowed it and misplaced it. I remember how easily the ink smudged in that edition.

      It’s been my favorite book my whole life. Thanks to Juster (and Feiffer), I was the only kid in my kindergarten class who knew what a dodecahedron was, what a Dilemma looked like, and how to get into (and out of) the Doldrums, and who loved to shout “a slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect,” even though he always believed the exact opposite.

      I’ve never understood why this book always seemed to have a lower profile or less public awareness than, say, Goodnight Moon or The Wind in the Willows.

  16. @17 Check your local library, there’s a good chance they have it on DVD. The Seattle Public Library has 16 copies!

  17. Great book. I still remember parts of it really well, and think of them now and then.

    The Chuck Jones movie . . . sigh. My mom (who loved the book) took my brother and sisters and I, and some neighbor kids. It was playing in a weird off-the-beaten path discount theater in Hicksville, Long Island. It was the first movie I remember being disappointed in.

  18. Saw the film as a child, freaked my shit right out. Felt like I was losing grip on reality.

  19. I can honestly say this book changed my life. It’s the one that changed me from being somebody who could read into a voracious reader.

  20. For some reason, it was the radio station playing one program after another of absolute silence that always stayed with me. I loved that book.

    FYI, for those of you with small ones and a trip involving many real-life tollbooths ahead, there’s an audiobook version out — read by David Hyde Pierce.

  21. If you like this, you should read _The Number Devil_ by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. It’s like _Phantom Tollbooth_ for numbers.

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