Keep a Whether Eye Out for the Everpresent Wordsnatcher

Last week’s posts seem mainly about the topic of inspiration. For me, the inspiration to become a writer came from one and only thing: reading.

It wasn’t until many years had passed as a professional writer that I recognized this; I figured a love of reading and the craft of writing were natural allies, and they are. But, I also spotted a pattern throughout my childhood of books that:

  • inspired months of play because their plots were so beguiling that I and my friends just had to re-enact them;
  • conjured continual quoting of certain choice lines;
  • taught me right from wrong and the grey areas in between and what to do about them; and
  • introduced characters and themes that demanded to be revisited and rediscovered at different junctures in my life.

One of these books – The Phantom Tollbooth – may have had the same effects on you. I found it on a recent trip home to New Hampshire, underneath a stack of old books, and instantly began reading it and remembering all over again why I became a writer.

It was a pleasure to learn that writer Michael Chabon had a similar discovery:

“It was while reading The Phantom Tollbooth that I began to realize, not that I wanted to be a writer (that came a little later, at the mercy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), but something simpler: I had a crush on the English language, one that was every bit as intense, if less advanced, as that from which the augustly named author, Mr. Norton Juster, himself evidently suffered.”

Chabon is author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Wonder Boys, among many other novels, short story collections and essays, and this quote comes from his updated introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth, which arrives in October.

For those who haven’t read Juster, or re-read this book in a while, The Phantom Tollbooth introduces the reader to Milo and an assortment of characters, such as the Whether Man, Tock the Watchdog, King Azaz and the Mathemagician, the Everpresent Wordsnatcher (who takes words right out of your mouth) and the Terrible Trivium (who surely haunts adults as much as children).

As with venturing through the looking-glass with Alice, paying your fare at the tollbooth takes you on an adventure that trusts you to think differently, play fairly, reserve judgment, and understand what’s happening without the intervention of an adult – heady stuff for a child.

“Why is it,” Milo is forced to ponder on his quest, “that quite often even the things which are correct just don’t seem to be right?”

Tollbooth isn’t all dark and danger-filled. There are feasts and castles in the air and language everywhere.

The book is rife with puns and plays on words and brimming with the pure joy of usage. As Chabon writes in his Tollbooth essay: “I can’t see how anybody who claims to love language can fail to marvel at the beautiful slipperiness of meaning that puns, like aquarium nets, momentarily catch and bring shimmering to the surface. Puns act to shatter or at least compromise meaning; a pun condenses unrelated, even opposing meanings, like a collapsing dwarf star, into a singularity.”

Near adventure’s end, King Azaz, whose name is itself a pun, and his brother, the Mathemagician, remind Milo that “so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.” That is as true with language as it is in life.

But perhaps we should let Milo and Tock have the last word:

“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.

Updating to add that The New Yorker in its Oct. 17, 2011, issue sits down with author Norton Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer for this lovely interview.

Two pieces of writing that inspired me this week:

“The book appeared in my life as mysteriously as the titular tollbooth itself, brought to our house one night as a gift for me by some old friend of my father’s whom I had never met before, and never saw again. Maybe all wondrous books appear in our lives the way Milo’s tollbooth appears, an inexplicable gift, cast up by some curious chance that comes to feel, after we have finished and fallen in love with the book, like the workings of a secret purpose. Of all the enchantments of beloved books the most mysterious—the most phantasmal—is the way they always seem to come our way precisely when we need them.”
~ Michael Chabon from The Phantom Tollbooth and the Wonder of Words”

“The last shafts of light waited patiently for a flight of wrens to find their way home, and a group of anxious stars had already taken their places.”
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster