Audiobooks: Rainn Wilson Narrates a New Audiobook of ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’

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THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH
By Norton Juster

Like books of varying allegorical degree it is often compared to — “Gulliver’s Travels,” “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” — “The Phantom Tollbooth” is a story about a journey, so I will tell you about my own journey listening to Rainn Wilson’s new audiobook version of Norton Juster’s classic tale.

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I was not coming to it cold, but neither am I a “Phantom Tollbooth” superfan. I don’t go around quoting it at parties or saying it changed my life. (People do.) Like you, I’m guessing, I read the book at some point in childhood — it was published in 1961 — but I have no memory of it aside from that of having loved it. Juster’s satire, wordplay and logical inversion surely appealed to me at an age when I was also a devotee of “Peanuts,” Mad and L. Frank Baum. I am pretty certain, too, that “The Phantom Tollbooth” sparked my lifelong love affair with the cartoons of Jules Feiffer, the book’s illustrator. But beyond that, a blank.

So, five decades later, as I listened to Wilson’s performance of Juster’s book, I felt as if I were meeting the hero, Milo, for the first time. He is a hopelessly incurious and blasé boy who, we are informed in the very first sentence, “didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.” Milo’s deliverance from intellectual and spiritual torpor is the titular tollbooth, a gift left in his bedroom by persons or forces unknown, which grants him entry into a fantasyland of his own: the “kingdom of Wisdom.” Motoring along Stuart Little-style in a breezy electric car, he visits the warring cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis; escapes the circuitous, enervating roads of the Doldrums; is briefly stranded on the Island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping, of course); meets a conductor whose orchestra plays colors; visits a curator who has a vault where she files away vintage sounds so they don’t interfere with new ones. “For instance, look here,” she tells Milo, opening a drawer and pulling out an envelope. “This is the exact tune George Washington whistled when he crossed the Delaware on that icy night in 1777.” Nearly everything in the kingdom is at cross-purposes, but with the help of new friends — Tock (part dog, part timepiece: a literal watchdog) and the jovial if ineffective Humbug (a nice nod to “Oz”) — Milo rescues the princesses Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason, who restore to the realm a measure of just what their names suggest. As for Milo, he returns home transformed, no longer a bored sad sack, now eager to savor “the special smell of each day.”

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