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Happy 50th birthday to Reason, Rhyme and Milo

By Anthony Lauriello     11/30/11 6:00pm

In my short life, I have had the privilege of reading some truly amazing literature, from Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov to Herman Melville's Moby Dick. However, I have never encountered a book more profound than Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. As the beloved children's novel celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, I am reminded just how relevant and important it still is.

For those unlucky few that have never accompanied Milo on his journey to the Land Beyond, The Phantom Tollbooth follows an apathetic young boy on his quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason from their prison in the sky and return them to a magical and allegorical land filled with clever puns. Don't let the book's ostensible simplicity and whimsical qualities fool you; Juster explores the human experience as well as any author in his child-accessible language. In Spain there is a saying that when you read Don Quixote as a child, you laugh; when you read it when you are older, you chuckle; and when you read it a third time, you cry. Similarly, The Phantom Tollbooth changes its meaning and importance as you age. When my mother first read me the book in first grade, I loved the adventure and the jokes that I did understand, but I had no way of comprehending the true meaning of the novel.

When I reread the novel the night before I graduated from high school I still did not grasp the reality of Juster's fantasy. The fight over whose domain is greater between King Azaz, ruler of words, and his brother, the Mathemagican, ruler of numbers, seemed ridiculous farce until I heard the constant bickering and snide remarks of engineering and English students and professors. The idea that the two must work together to achieve Rhyme and Reason at times seems as unthinkable on this campus as it does to those who inhabit the Land Beyond. The demons that Milo faces in the Mountains of Ignorance did not scare me as a brave first grader, but now the specters of the Everpresent Wordsnatcher who steals the words from your mouth and the Terrible Trivium who wastes innocents' time with menial and useless tasks frighten me every day. Finally, Milo's initial flaws of boredom and apathy, in a world with amazing things to learn and do, confront each and every one of us and are omnipresent dangers.

Eventually, Milo learns to appreciate the wonderful things around him and to enjoy learning for the sake of learning, even if he doesn't know what immediate use it will have. As we trudge along in our exams, constantly computing our grade point averages and the remaining hours we have left to sleep, the simple lesson that learning itself is an inherently rewarding task seems as far off as ever. Simply put, higher education is rife with many of the demons that Juster describes, but after reading or rereading The Phantom Tollbooth I am sure you will agree with me that without this lesson, Rhyme and Reason will remain in the clouds forever.

Anthony Lauriello is a Wiess College junior and Thresher Backpage Editor.


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