This is not my writing. [The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster]


I read The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time when I was eight or nine. It was the first book that actually showed me what it is to have an imagination. I’ve read it tens of times since then, and it still delights me. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s some of what you’re missing.


“‘I never knew words could be so confusing,’ Milo said to Tock as he bent down to scratch the dog’s ear.

‘Only when you use a lot to say a little,’ answered Tock.

Milo thought this was quite the wisest thing he’d heard all day.”


“‘Does everyone here grow the way you do?’ puffed Milo when he had caught up.

‘Almost everyone,’ replied Alec, and then he stopped a moment and thought. ‘Now and then, though, someone does begin to grow differently. Instead of down, his feet grow up toward the sky. But we do our best to discourage awkward things like that.’

‘What happens to them?’ insisted Milo.

‘Oddly enough, they often grow ten times the size of everyone else,’ said Alec thoughtfully, ‘and I’ve heard that they walk among the stars.’”

The Mathemagician

“‘You have to dig for them. Don’t you know anything at all about numbers?’

‘Well, I don’t think they’re very important,’ snapped Milo, too embarrassed to admit the truth.

‘NOT IMPORTANT!’ roared the Dodecahedron, turning red with fury. ‘Could you have tea for two without the two — or three blind mice without the three? Would there be four corners of the earth if there weren’t a four? And how would you sail the seven seas without a seven?’

‘All I meant was –’ began Milo, but the Dodecahedron, overcome with emotion and shouting furiously, carried right on.

‘If you had high hopes, how would you know how high they were? And did you know that narrow escapes come in all different widths? Would you travel the whole wide world without ever knowing how wide it was? And how could you do anything at long last,’ he concluded, waving his arms over his head, ‘without knowing how long the last was? Why, numbers are the most beautiful and valuable things in the world. Just follow me and I’ll show you.’”


“He handed Milo a copy of the letter, which read:

4738 1919,

667 394017 5841 62589 85371 14 39588 7190434 203 27689 57131 481206.

5864 98053,


‘But maybe he doesn’t understand numbers,’ said Milo, who found it a little difficult to read himself.

‘NONSENSE!’ bellowed the Mathemagician. ‘Everyone understands numbers. No matter what language you speak, they always mean the same thing. A seven is a seven anywhere in the world.’

‘My goodness,’ thought Milo, ‘everybody is so terribly sensitive about the things they know best.’”

The Orchestra

“‘You must never feel badly about making mistakes,’ explained Reason quietly, ‘as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.’

‘But there’s so much to learn,’ he said, with a thoughtful frown.

‘Yes, that’s true,’ admitted Rhyme; ‘but it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.’

‘That’s just what I mean,’ explained Milo as Tock and the exhausted bug drifted quietly off to sleep. ‘Many of the things I’m supposed to know seem so useless that I can’t see the purpose in learning them at all.’

‘You may not see it now,’ said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo’s puzzled face, ‘but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way. Why, when a housefly flaps his wings, a breeze goes round the world; when a speck of dust falls to the ground, the entire planet weighs a little more; and when you stamp your foot, the earth moves slightly off its course. Whenever you laugh, gladness spreads like the ripples in a pond; and whenever you’re sad, no one anywhere can be really happy. And it’s much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer.’

‘And remember, also,’ added the Princess of Sweet Rhyme, ‘that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you’ll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.’” (page 233-4)


“As the cheering continued, Rhyme leaned forward and touched Milo gently on the arm.

‘They’re shouting for you,’ she said with a smile.

‘But I could never have done it,’ he objected, ‘without everyone else’s help.’

‘That may be true,’ said Reason gravely, ‘but you had the courage to try; and what you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do.’

‘That’s why,’ said Azaz, ‘there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn’t discuss until you returned.’

‘I remember,’ said Milo eagerly. ‘Tell me now.’

‘It was impossible,’ said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.

‘Completely impossible,’ said the Mathemagician, looking at the king.

‘Do you mean –’ stammered the bug, who suddenly felt a bit faint.

‘Yes, indeed,’ they repeated together; ‘but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone — and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.’

And for the remainder of the ride Milo didn’t utter a sound.”



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