Milo and Tock Turn 50

December 6, 2011

I just learned that the most powerful book of my childhood, The Phantom Tollbooth, has turned 50. As Adam Gopnik explains in his wonderful appreciation of the book (New Yorker, Oct. 17, 2011), turning 50 is an important achievement in the life of a children’s book because “it means that the book hasn’t been passed just from parent to child but from parent to child and on to child again.”

We’ll see. I fell in love with the book in elementary school (the book was only three or four years old then) when Mrs. Anschel introduced it into our fourth grade classroom. When Chanukah rolled around a few months later, or maybe it was my birthday?, it became the first book that I ever asked my parents to buy for me. Years later I couldn’t wait for my children to discover it so I bought each of them a copy as soon as I thought they would be old enough to appreciate it. Once I even urged my younger daughter through a dark doorway in downtown Portland so that some strange man (Norton Juster, sitting behind a table) could sign her copy of the book. And just before I graduated from high school, I threw aside all teen-aged self respect and waded into a movie theater strewn with noisy 8 and 9-year olds so that I could watch the animated version. (It was awful.)

The pleasure of the book lies, of course, in its wordplay. As Gopnik perceptively explains, the book makes “funny and concrete some familiar idea or turn of speech.” But it was better than that because it was a story that we could mine over and over again for fresh discoveries.

For example, my 4th grade friends and I immediately felt sorry for Milo (admittedly, in a sort of mocking superior sort of way) when he discovered that he would literally have to eat his words (“Should have made a tastier speech,” someone advises him), but only now do I discover that the denizens of Dictionopolis must eat words for their very survival. Of course.

Likewise, where the Mathemagician’s miserliness added a vague menacing quality to the story when I was young, I now see that his miserliness is inextricably bound up with his ability to measure and calculate.

Perhaps the best discovery of all, given the fact that I have been a professor at a small liberal arts college for nearly 30 years now, is Gopnik’s assertion that the book is a paean to the liberal arts. In his eyes, the book makes “knowing too much about one thing” into a “moral sin”. Milo is “the perfect first-generation American undergraduate, scanning the course catalogue, wide-eyed.” He “doesn’t educate himself; he gets educated. His epiphany is that math and reading and even spelling are themselves subjects of adventure, if seen from the right angle.”

Although none of my faculty colleagues has ever admitted to being raised on The Phantom Tollbooth, I’m sure there are many fans who will appreciate the following story. In 1972 or 1973, during my first year of college. I was sitting in an honors chemistry class next to my childhood friend and 4th grade classmate Tom. Our teacher, a grad student named Dan Harris, had just finished explaining that atomic orbital energies rose with the number of nodes in the orbitals. Somehow, this knowledge triggered the same thought in Tom’s head and mine because we turned to face each other and simultaneously said, “no node is good node.”

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