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.

Juster, who speaks with the soft accents of the old Brooklyn, began recalling the origins of the book: “I had come back from the service, and I went to work in an architectural office.

I was really kind of bored with everything, and I think, I’ll do a little book on cities.

He was doing, quite coincidentally, a series of reprints of children’s books.

The Looking Glass Library.”“Very classy-looking,” Feiffer put in.“At that time, everyone was writing down to children.”“No, it wasn’t you, Jules,” Juster added, though he explained that they already shared a roof.Stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1956, Juster had found a garden apartment—“That’s what they call a basement room in Brooklyn,” Feiffer noted—in the Brooklyn Heights building where Feiffer was living, two floors up.“My guilt for not doing it was overwhelming,” Juster continued. When I finished the book, I felt very worried and very guilty.The kind of book that will be interesting for kids. Anyway, I was up to my ass in worries and notes and couldn’t get it done.I applied to the Ford Foundation for a grant—old saying, when God wants to punish you, he gives you what you ask for! And so I took a vacation with friends, at the beach, Fire Island.”“Probably with me!—to scale the Mountains of Ignorance, defeat the demons, and release the banished princesses of Rhyme and Reason from their prison.(They were banished because they refused to choose between words and numbers, thereby infuriating the kings.) Along the way, each new experience makes funny and concrete some familiar idea or turn of speech: Milo jumps to Conclusions, a crowded island; grows drowsy in the Doldrums; and finds that you can swim in the Sea of Knowledge for hours and not get wet.Feiffer and Juster, both born in 1929, are like a pair of wryly benevolent uncles, with Norton the dreamy, crinkle-eyed, soft-spoken uncle who gives you the one piece of good advice you never forget, and Jules the wisecracking uncle who never lets up on your foibles but was happy to have you crash on his couch that night you just couldn’t bear going home.They interrupted, teased, and shpritzed each other as they recalled having blundered into a classic.The book is made magical by Juster’s and Feiffer’s gift for transforming abstract philosophical ideas into unforgettable images.The thinnest fat man in the world turns out to be the fattest thin man; we see them both.

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