I’m curious how many other people share my particular secret guilt: The knowledge, gnawing away inside you, that there is a classic book that you know you should have read by now but never have.
I’m convinced everyone must know of a book (or movie or TV show) that is widely disseminated in popular culture —but that if word ever got out that they, themselves, had never consumed it, they would never again be considered hip or urbane or literate. That they, in fact, will never get invited to hang with cool people again.
For me, that book was “The Phantom Tollbooth,” the children’s classic by Norton Juster.
When my well-read friends ever speak of it — even if they overhear it referenced in passing conversation — they always stop to comment, “Oh, I loved that book.” To which someone else will reply, “Yeah, that was great, wasn’t it?”
I don’t know how I missed it. I ever remember the librarian sitting us down and reading excerpts to us at Beechwoods Elementary. I remember sitting crossed-legged on an ochre carpet thinking that any book with a title like that was sure to be good. Then, for whatever reason, I never picked it up.
Thirty years later, driven mad by guilt (and the thousand-somethingth time I had been left out of a conversation about it), I finally picked up a copy and read it.
The monkey is off my back! But oh, my friends, my book-loving, media-savvy, witty and wise friends: I found it tedious.
Yes, I’ve just compounded my original sin (not reading a classic) with a newer, fouler sin (not loving a classic). I didn’t realize “Phantom Tollbooth” was a quite literal allegory about the search for knowledge, and the merits of learning over ignorance and complacency. Milo, the personality-free cipher of a protagonist, experiences a series of random, quip-laden encounters with school-bookish characters like the Spelling Bee and Mathemagician and the Threadbare Excuse.
“Well, you might say I’m a specialist,” said [Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord]. “I specialize in noise — all kinds — from the loudest to the softest, and from the slightly annoying to the terribly unpleasant. For instance, have you ever heard a square-wheeled steam roller ride over a street of hard-boiled eggs?” …
“But who would want all those terrible noises?” asked Milo, holding his ears.
“Everybody does,” said the surprised doctor; “they’re very popular today. Why, I’m kept so busy I can hardly fill the orders for noise pills, racket lotion, clamor salve, and hubbub tonic. … Without them, people would be very unhappy, so I make sure that they get as much as they want. Why if you take some of my medicine every day, you’ll never have to hear a beautiful sound again.”
“I don’t want to be cured of beautiful sounds,” insisted Milo.
“Besides,” growled Tock … “there is no such illness as lack of noise.”
“Of course not,” replied the doctor, … “that’s what makes it so difficult to cure. I only treat illnesses that don’t exist: that way, if I can’t cure them, there’s no harm done.”
The absurdity and just-so-clever dialog invites a lot of comparison to “Alice in Wonderland,” another classic that, let’s be honest, is also kind of tedious. (Have you ever read it? Sure, it’s loaded with great imagery and memorable moments, but if you plow through the whole thing, you’ll wander through so much aimlessness you’ll need a Boy Scout and a compass to come out the other side.)
So either this proves I’m a craven half-wit, or that I just have a low tolerance for enigmatic characters and absurdist plot. But at least I know what everyone is talking about!
While I invite you to call me on my poor taste, I’m quite curious to hear your answer to a more pressing question:
What book have you never read that is making you feel guilty and less cultured as we speak? Come clean. It will be good for the soul.