11 Whimsical Facts About The Phantom Tollbooth

istock (blank book)
istock (blank book)

Norton Juster’s 1961 tale of a bored boy who travels to a magical land is more than it seems—as its plot enchants, The Phantom Tollbooth also manages to illustrate the joys of learning. The story behind the book's creation is just as fascinating, so we’ve compiled some fun facts for your next journey through the Kingdom of Wisdom.

1. The Phantom Tollbooth is a product of Juster’s procrastination.

After serving three years in the Navy, Juster returned to his hometown of Brooklyn to work as an architect. He received a $5,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to write a children’s book about cities, but overwhelmed by the amount of research it required, decided to take a vacation. Upon returning, Juster’s guilt over his lack of progress on the city book led him to start writing snippets of stories about a little boy named Milo—who happened to be quite similar to a young Juster. As Juster told NPR, “In order to stop thinking about cities, I had to start thinking about something else.”

2. Juster’s childhood synesthesia shaped the book.

Synesthesia is the condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another. It causes the afflicted to inexplicably associate a sound with a specific color, or perhaps a word with a color—the condition manifests differently in each synesthete.

Juster’s synesthesia caused him to associate numbers with colors, and similarly, words and images. Although he eventually grew out of it, the visual blurring of senses is evident in his writing. Juster once noted, “When I start to write I have to create visually, no matter how abstract, no matter how undefined. … It’s not only that I would have been a different writer had I not had that very developed visual sense, I don’t think I would have been a writer at all.”

3. Despite the similarities, Juster wasn't inspired by Alice in Wonderland.

It’s easy to draw comparisons between the Kingdom of Wisdom and fantastical worlds like Narnia, the Emerald City, or Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s protagonist Alice is, like Milo, a bored child frustrated with reality; later, they both discover new worlds where “things aren’t always what they seem.” However, Juster’s inspiration came from a different source. The Phantom Tollbooth was heavily influenced by Juster’s father’s love of puns and wordplay, and further shaped by a childhood spent listening to the radio and imagining what could be.

4. A “boy who asked too many questions” inspired Milo.

While struggling with his book on cities, Juster had an interesting encounter with a young boy who asked him, “What is the biggest number there is?” The always-clever Juster replied, “Tell me what you think is the biggest number there is,” and then repeatedly told the boy to add one to that number, leading to a discussion about infinity. Thus, the “boy who asked too many questions” was born.

5. Milo’s watchdog had radio roots.

The character Tock was based on Jim Fairfield from Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, a popular radio show during Juster’s childhood. Tock, the “watchdog,” befriends Milo early in the book and accompanies him on his adventures. Jack Armstrong’s “Uncle Jim” was not a canine, but he did share Tock’s wisdom, courage, and adventurous spirit.

6. The iconic illustrations are the product of a lucky coincidence.

Jules Feiffer, a cartoonist who lived in the same apartment building as Juster, would often hear the author pacing in his apartment as he was working on Tollbooth. Curious, Feiffer asked to see some of Juster’s manuscripts, and soon found himself illustrating scenes from the book. Feiffer sketched his original drawings on flimsy pieces of tracing paper, most of which have now been lost or damaged. Feiffer later remarked, “Had Norton told me he was writing a classic, I would have done the drawings on nicer paper.”

7. Juster and Feiffer fell into a (mostly) playful power struggle.

Juster did most of the cooking for the pair and later joked that if Feiffer wanted to eat, he had to draw. The two got into it constantly: Juster frequently described scenes that were impossible to draw, and Feiffer responded by drawing things the way he wanted. Feiffer, for example, wasn’t good at drawing horses, so he drew the armies of wisdom riding in on cats instead. Despite their creative differences, the two remain good friends today.

8. It was supposed to be a flop …

As Juster told The New Yorker in 2011, the initial sales projections for his collaboration with Feiffer weren’t great. “Everyone said this is not a children’s book, the vocabulary is much too difficult, the wordplay and the punning they will never understand, and anyway fantasy is bad for children because it disorients them.”

9. But The New Yorker saved the day.

A glowing review from The New Yorker critic Emily Maxwell paved the way for the book's success. Maxwell adored it, comparing its themes to John Bunyan’s 17th century classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. She wrote, “As ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ is concerned with the awakening of the sluggardly spirit, ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ is concerned with the awakening of the lazy mind.”

10. Juster spent most of his career as an architect, not an author.

Although The Phantom Tollbooth became a classic, Juster wrote only a few more books (the most famous of which is The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics). Instead, he spent most of his working life as an architect. Juster served as a professor of architecture and environmental design at Hampshire College for more than 20 years and even co-founded a small architectural firm in 1970.

11. Juster wanted to demonstrate that learning is a “world we enter.”

In a 2011 installment of NPR’s All Things Considered, Juster shared his motivation for writing the book:

The prevailing wisdom of the time held that learning should be more accessible and less discouraging. The aim was that no child would ever have to confront anything that he or she didn't already know. But my feeling is that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don't know yet—the kind of liberating words that Milo encounters on his adventure.

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

iStock.com/RyersonClark
iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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