Norton Short Reader Essays

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(And there are two new books for the occasion, both coming out this month from Knopf: “The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth,” with notes by Leonard Marcus; and a fiftieth-anniversary edition, with a series of short essays by notable readers about the effect the book has had on their lives.)This reader, from the first generation, received a copy not long after the book appeared, and can still recall its curious force.

How odd the first chapter seemed, with so little time taken up with the kind of persuasive domestic detail that fills the beginning chapters of the first Narnia book or “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Frankweiler” or “Mary Poppins.” We’re quickly introduced to the almost anonymous, and not very actively parented, Milo, a large-eyed boy in a dark shirt—a boy too bored to look up from the pavement as he walks home from school.

We meet the fractional boy, divided in the middle of his smile, who is the “.58 child” in the average American family of 2.58 children.

The tone of the book is at once antic and professorial, as if a very smart middle-aged academic were working his way through an absurd and elaborate parable for his kids.

Milo finds that the strange land on the other side of the tollbooth is sundered between words and numbers, between the land of Azaz the Unabridged, the King of Dictionopolis, and his brother the Mathemagician, the ruler of Digitopolis.

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The only way to reunite the kingdoms is for someone—why not Milo?

Within paragraphs, a strange package has arrived in his room.

It turns out to be a cardboard tollbooth, waiting to be assembled.

And of course the demons appeared very early in my thinking but didn’t arrive in the book until very late.

Judy took it to Jason Epstein, a real major player.

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