I’m Happy As Canby

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. For those who haven’t read it, first of all, go read it as soon as possible: it’s a book for younger readers, so you should be able to finish it in relatively short order. The plot involves Milo, a bored materialistic young boy who receives a mysterious box containing the tollbooth of the title. When he drives his toy car through the booth, he ends up in a dangerous land where metaphors are real and geometric shapes come to life. (It doesn’t hurt that the illustrations are by the wonderfully quirky cartoonist Jules Feiffer.)

I first encountered a dodecahedron when I read this book as a kid — a twelve-sided figure, each side of which is a pentagon. Dodecahedrons are a type of icosahedron; we saw a 20-sided version (with equilateral triangles for sides) in the Nobel Prize for chemistry last week, but in The Phantom Tollbooth they are sentient and mobile. There is also a very good explanation of infinity (the countable variety, for the mathematically sophisticated). Also, this novel is an obvious inspiration for one of the best young-adult fantasy novels I’ve ever read: Un Lun Dun by China Miéville.

Norton Juster himself is an architect and professor of architecture (he retired in 1992), so the books he is most famous for are a kind of departure. Yet his love for a broad education — the liberal arts in the best modern sense — is plain to see. As someone who also strongly believes in a broad education for a fully literate and numerate society, I hail Juster’s spirit. He helped shape the physicist and science writer I am. That’s why I’m happy as Canby to celebrate today.

And now I will hush, because it goes without saying.

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