A Literary Tradition

I can’t remember when this tradition began, when I first revisited my beloved childhood novel, The Phantom Tollbooth. I know the first time around, I found the book in no special way, simply another book in my elementary school library, inconspicuous. Years later, when I was older and able to better appreciate the wordplay and cleverness, I reread it and declared it my favorite book. More than Lolita, more than One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Phantom Tollbooth is my favorite book.

I have read this book so many times that my paperback copy is ripping at the spine. When I reread it, I can picture what illustration will appear on the next page, can remember the jokes that always make me laugh (one that quickly comes to mind is when Milo meets the half boy [.58 to be precise] who comes from the average family–mother, father, and 2.58 children), and feel with a little twinge in my heart when my favorite scenes are coming. When Milo meets Alec Bings in the Forest of Sight and learns to see the world as an adult, if only for a second, he replies, “…I think I’ll continue to see things as a child. It’s not so far to fall.”

Milo and Alec Bings“It’s all in the way you look at things.”–Alec Bings

I’m not alone in my appreciation of this classic children’s masterpiece. In the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition author Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys, and most recently, Telegraph Avenue) wrote of his own relationship with the book, an enduring love that has stayed with him since he was a boy (read the introduction here). This book is universal and yet personal. It touches on themes of learning, imagination, and the power of wonder, but it is so personal that I feel like it a story meant just for me, as much as Michael Chabon or countless other readers feel the story is meant only for them.

I’m not recommending this book (I’ve already done that in the past). I’m recommending that you find the book that renews you. I’m recommending that you make your own literary tradition. Writers need to read good books like we need to breathe. We can’t constantly produce or we will wear ourselves  down. We can’t constantly produce without consuming as well, so you may as well consume the books that make you better. For me, it’s The Phantom Tollbooth. I read it at the end of the year, in a warm bath at my parents’ house. Just as going home and spending the holidays with my family renews me, so does returning to one of the first books that showed me just what books can do: transport you, make you laugh, make you think, and fill you with wonder.

The Phantom Tollbooth, a bath, and usually a hot cup of coffee make up my literary tradition, and this tradition has been a part of my personal history for at least five years, however long ago it was that I realized this is what I need. I need it at the end of the year, as I look back on rejection letters from literary journals and look forward to next’s years readings and opportunities. I need this tradition because it pauses me. It quiets the world around me. I can let go of my stories, my characters, my worlds, and enter Milo’s world, go on his adventure, discover the lands beyond…

Find your book. Find your tradition. Find the thing that makes you feel whole again. And treasure it. We need these traditions and these moments of renewal. Because next year will bring it’s own worries and triumphs and distractions. But for just a moment, take a deep breath and escape.

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