An Ode to Imagination – The Phantom Tollbooth at Fifty

This year that gloriously imaginative childhood favorite of mine The Phantom Tollbooth turns fifty years old. Of all the books I read growing up, none left a more profound or lasting impression upon me than The Phantom Tollbooth.

Reflecting back on it, I suppose I can attribute my love for words, terrible puns, and exploring the origins of idioms with such child-like curiosity to that book. More importantly, Tollbooth made education exciting – not the pedantic learning taught in school, but the avaricious consumption of knowledge for one’s personal edification. Tollbooth showed children the excitement and fun that learning can bring as well as the benefits of unbridled curiosity and imagination.

To that end, have a look at Adam Gopnik’s fabulous essay in this week’s New Yorker on the Tollbooth. Both a reflection on the book’s significance as well as an exploratory piece into the minds of the book’s creators, Gopnik has a candid chat with Norton Juster, the author, and Jules Feiffer, the illustrator.

What struck me the most about the interview were their thoughts on children and imagination today. According to Juster and Feiffer, television and contemporary culture’s dominance by visual narratives have destroyed our ability to use our imagination.

For Feiffer, listening to the radio as child growing up was a major source of inspiration for the book. Feiffer credits listening to radio programs like the “Lone Ranger” as sparking his imagination and helping him to create his own visuals without realizing it.

In contrast, “It’s impossible today!” Feiffer said. “Everything is visual. We had thought balloons in our heads that played jazz riffs off what we read and what we heard, and that’s what led to the imaginative restructuring of reality.”

Juster agreed, adding, “Sometimes I go into schools now and say, Let me start a story. And what you get from the kids is almost exactly what comes out of the TV set. The kids have very few images of their own. We came home from school, listened to hours of fifteen-minute serials, Jack Armstrong and Don Winslow, and it was great.”

In the spirit of the Tollbooth, try to recapture your childhood imagination when it was once free of the cluttering influence of television and movies by listening to some old timey radio. Head over to RadioLovers.com which has collected thousands of hours of old radio shows like Sherlock Holmes, Gunsmoke, and the Avenger.

Meanwhile to read the rest of the Juster and Feiffer interview with Gopnik, click here.

-Eugene

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