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Meet the book that changed me

My favorite book is 50 years old. It was already 17 years old when I found it, a used paperback among stacks of books on the ground at a yard sale in 1978.

It took me weeks to read it, and the effect of "The Phantom Tollbooth" by Norton Juster with illustrations by Jules Feiffer was so profound that I remember exactly how this book came into my life the summer after third grade.

I tagged along behind my friend Monica and her mom to a yard sale. I picked up this book because it had the word "phantom" in the title. That's all there was to it. I liked mysteries and apparently fantasy, because the more haunted and ghostly the better. I didn't know what a tollbooth was. The book cost me a dime.

It was such tough going at first I thought it was a grown-up book, which made me more determined to read it. Eventually I read as far as the spelling bee. The Spelling Bee was an actual man-sized insect that could spell anything, A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G. He got into a fight where market stalls and people were toppled. In the disturbance, the main character, a boy named Milo, was knocked over and fell on the bee. The bee shouted, "Help! Help! There's a little boy on me."

To my 9-year-old ear, that was the wittiest thing I ever read. I was hooked.

I am amused by the book in a whole new way this week, as I read Adam Gopnik's essay in The New Yorker about "Tollbooth" and the liberal arts, and as I listen to interviews with Juster and Feiffer about the book's 50th anniversary.

Now, "The Phantom Tollbooth" is a celebrated American classic of children's literature. There's a fundraiser for a Tollbooth documentary at kickstarter.com. A decade ago I was surprised to find it in school reading books. When it was published in 1961, Juster was told that it was not a children's book, the vocabulary was too difficult and fantasy is bad for kids.

The book certainly is a fantasy trip to a strange and punny place, but it is so much more. Already young Milo has concluded that everything in life is a bore, and the pursuit of knowledge is the biggest waste of time of all.

So, Milo receives, this mysterious toy tollbooth, and as he has nothing else to do, passes through it. He finds a world divided between two sparring kingdoms, one ruled by words and one by numbers. Things are batty in this place because the cranky kings have banished Rhyme and Reason. You can guess who scales the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue them. All along the journey, Milo discovers the meaning and power of words and numbers and how to think.

I was already a reader when I found this book, and my parents already considered the pursuit of knowledge worthwhile.

But I, like Milo, learned something else: When one of us learns something, the whole world becomes a little bit smarter.

My whole point of view changed in that moment. We're accustomed to the film effect now, but think of it then -- when a camera pulls back and gives you one of those belly-dropping Google Earth pictures of the neighborhood, then the nation, continent and finally the earth, hanging in space. That book was a hand that reached down and grabbed me by the scruff of the shirt collar and hauled me up in one fluid motion from my bedroom closet reading spot to hang suspended in space, looking down at the planet.

It put my efforts, even the mundane ones, like mastering multiplication tables, into more prestigious perspective. When one of us learns something, the whole world becomes a little bit smarter.

Of course, it works the other way too. When people fail to thrive or don't have opportunities or don't take opportunities they do have, our sum is diminished.

This realization has informed anything I have accomplished since.

Actually, I have many favored books. I still cling to mysteries. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are both amazing and enduring. For a long time the 18th-century novel Candide displaced my childhood favorite because it is clever and still relevant.

But I always return to the Lands Beyond of Juster's book. The journey doesn't stop. I have shared it with my brother and other children. I discovered one of my best friends when I met her cat, Milo. Another friend gave me a hardcover reprint for my 25th birthday.

And I keep meeting people who are also on the journey.

Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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