“The Phantom Toll Booth” by Norton Juster

For unclear reasons, I had been thinking on and off about this book recently and arranged to receive it in my Christmas stocking.  It was a pleasure to re-read, though of course it suffers from the sorts of problems that typically plague books for children (no evident internal motivations for most characters; plot development that proceeds by the arrival of new characters who explain everything that’s about to happen).  Some of the puns are silly, but others are really wonderful (Tock the “watch dog”, “jumping to Conclusions” and Canby, the twelve faces of the Dodecahedron), and the observation that numbers are mined (rather than, say, forged) would warm any mathematical Platonist’s heart.

The thing that most unexpectedly bothered me was the gender politics of the book: the central characters of Rhyme and Reason are beautiful (this is mentioned repeatedly as their primary virtue) princesses locked away in a castle, and this is where they stay for nearly all of the book.  Then, upon being rescued, they … do nothing.  Similarly, the Which spends her life sitting in a jail cell (from which she could escape by the push of a button) knitting.  I think those may be the only female characters who get to speak.  All told, this part was rather gross.

One question perplexes me: nearly every character has a completely straightforward or punny name.  The only one I can’t figure out is Alec Bings (who grows down instead of up and so whose feet are 3 feet off the ground; and who sees through things but can’t see what’s right in front of his nose).  What does his name mean?

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