Sunday 18 August 2013

Sunday 18th August - Time, and The Phantom Tolbooth

"you see," [said the watchdog] "once there was no time at all, and people found it very inconvenient. They never knew whether they were eating lunch or dinner, and they were always missing trains. So time was invented to help them keep track of the day and get to places when they should. When they began to count all the time that was available, what with 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour and 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year, it seemed as if there was much more than could ever be used. 'If there's so much of it, it couldn't be very valuable,' was the general opinion, and it soon fell into disrepute.. People wasted it and even gave it away. Then we were given the job of seeing that no one wasted time again," he said, sitting up proudly. "It's work but a noble calling. For you see" - and now he was sitting up, shouting with his arms outstretched - "it is out most valuable possession, more precious than diamonds. It marches on, it and tide wait for no man, and - "

The Annotated version - now that's one for the wish list!
Milo meets the watchdog and tells him he's "just killing time".
He's lucky that the watchdog didn't chase him down the road!

I've known about "The Phantom Tolbooth" by Norton Juster "forever", but I never read it until recently, because I didn't like the cover picture, or the illustrations. Then, last year, I sent a postcard to my Aunt with the cover illustration on it (at random - it was the next one in the box of Puffin Book postcards that I had at the time) and she replied saying that it had been a favourite of my grandmother's. Which I hadn't known.

I downloaded it to my Kindle and started reading. That was last Summer, and I got most of the way through until for some reason I got distracted and so didn't finish it. So, today, I've started from the beginning again. Risky, though, because it is SO full of dazzling wordplay that I'm now going to be quoting from it forever.

How about this from a couple of pages earlier: Milo wasn't paying attention and thinking about where he was going, and took a wrong turning. The road began winding up hill, and everything became greyer and greyer, and his little car went slower and slower until it just stopped.

"I wonder where I am," said Milo in a very worried tone.
"You'," wailed a voice that sounded far away.

The voice turns out to belong to a Lethergarian, who recites their daily schedule of procrastination, lingering, loitering, napping, dilly-dallying. Milo is saved from joining them by the sudden arrival of the watchdog.

"What are you doing here?" growled the watchdog.
"Just killing time," replied Milo apologetically.

This reply infuriates the watchdog. It turns out that the only way to escape the Doldrums is to start thinking.

Milo began to think as hard as he could. He thought of birds that swim and fish that fly. He thought of yesterday's lunch and tomorrow's dinner... and as he thought, the wheels of his car began to turn.

I'm going to have to stop typing out this book sooner rather than later! I reading this book is a bit like reading poetry; it throws up lots of avenues to explore along the way and I have to keep stopping and finding time and space to think about what I have just read and pursue the ideas to the end.

I've several books on the go at the moment which are like this: "Cultural Amnesia" by Clive James,
"Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places" by Eugene Petersen and now this one. Somehow, they don't fit the category of "reading as a leisure activity"! It's all such brain-bending stuff.


  1. Thinking of books and wordplay, have you read Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn? It's a surprisingly small book (I got it out of the library as they don't have the non-comic-book version on Kindle), but it'll take some time to read as it's full of fascinating wordplay. Have a look through for a whole bunch of quotes from it.

    1. thanks for the heads up - off to the local library at a fast trot!