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Jane Ahlin, Published December 03 2011

Ahlin: A tale of talk-show hosts and the phantom toll booth

Two letters to the editor in The Forum recently caught my eye. One writer bemoaned the bad grammar of a popular talk-show host, particularly because the host is a college graduate (of a North Dakota college, no less). The other, written in response, pretty much told off the first letter-writer by insisting grammar wasn’t the point; instead, talk-show hosts are “personalities” whose word usage is part of their shtick.

Well, well, well. There’s nothing like a dust-up over bad grammar to bring smiles to the faces of us English-types. It’s not that we’re out to correct the world (really, we’re friendlier than that); on the other hand, given our druthers, we’d have every single citizen love the English language the way we do – from infinitives to idioms and correlative conjunctions to past and present participles. (For sure, we’d have every American with access to a microphone take pride in knowing when to use “I” and when to use “me.”)

Between texting and tweeting and today’s political inclination to treat education as society’s financial burden rather than America’s ticket to future security, the love of language suffers. What a perfect time for the 50th anniversary of that wonderful, laugh-out-loud book of “linguistic acrobatics” and utter good sense, “The Phantom Toll Booth.”

Written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, “The Phantom Toll Booth” was published in 1961 as a children’s book aimed at middle schoolers. Fifty years later, it’s never been out of print. As with many excellent children’s books, “The Phantom Toll Booth” delights and instructs adults, too.

Here’s a quick plot summary: A bored boy named Milo arrives home from school to find a big package and a note that says, “For Milo, who has plenty of time.” Oddly enough, it’s a tollbooth. He assembles the booth, pulls his electric car from the mess of toys in his room, gets into it, and heads for the tollbooth. Soon he is on his way to “Dictionopolis,” in the “Lands Beyond.” But first he must deal with the “Whether Man” in “Expectations.” (Of course, he must get beyond Expectations.)

Shortly, he loses focus and finds himself in the land of “Doldrums” with creatures called “Lethargarians.” one of whom says, “People who don’t pay attention often get stuck in the Doldrums.” Milo is jolted out of the Doldrums by a watchdog named “Tock” whose body is a clock and who decries “wasting” or, worse, “killing” time. He becomes one of Milo’s two travel partners. (The other, Humbug, wants to sound knowledgeable without doing the work of learning.)

Milo’s quest becomes that of rescuing two princesses, “Rhyme and Reason,” from the “Castle in the Air,” where they were banished for telling “King Azaz” of “Dictionopolis” and the “Mathemagician” of “Digitopolis” that words and numbers are equally important. Along the way, Milo must travel in the “Foothills of Confusion,” the “Valley of Sound and Forest of Sight,” the “Mountains of Ignorance” and the “Sea of Knowledge.” (My favorite: Milo can “jump” from the shore to an island called “Conclusions,” but he must get wet and swim a long time in the “Sea of Knowledge” to get back to land.)

Fantasy, punning and wordplay go on and on, keeping readers amused and teaching at the same time. You see, at its heart, “The Phantom Tollbooth” is a traditional moral allegory about getting an education and using it well, about appreciating everyday things we take for granted, and about the importance of common sense.

By the time Reason tells Milo that mistakes are fine “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them,” and Rhyme says that “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,” we readers have dropped our cynicism and defenses. When Rhyme adds that “what we learn today, for no reason at all, will help (us) discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow,” we believe her. We know we’re never too old to take pleasure in learning. Ask your favorite English teacher: Even good grammar unlocks some powerful secrets.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.