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Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works • View topic - Norton Juster

Norton Juster

for discussing authors not listed here, main list or "possibles"

Norton Juster

Postby DavidTate on Sunday, 16 November 2008, 10:57 am

I have a candidate for the "Notable authors of limited output" section of the website.

Norton Juster is an odd case. Very few people would recognize his name. Quite a few more would recognize the title of his most famous work -- The Phantom Tollbooth. I don't think it's a stretch to call that book a classic of children's literature; since its publication in 1961, several generations of children (and their parents) have been delighted by the adventures of Milo and Tock in the Kingdom of Wisdom.

Far less widely known but even more beloved is Juster's second great work. This is the illustrated story The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, first published in 1963. There's nothing else quite like it; something like 70 octavo pages, mostly paired as brief text with a facing illustration, telling the story of the hapless line who fell in love with a dot, and how he won her. I've seen comparisons with Abbot's Flatland, but I think they're fatuous -- Juster is on a completely different literary level. From the dedication(*) to the moral(**), it's a perfect gem of a creation. I'll quote the opening few pages:
Once upon a time, there was a sensible straight line, who was hopelessly in love

with a dot. "You're the beginning and the end, the hub, the core, and the quintessence," he told her tenderly, but the frivolous dot wasn't a bit interested,

for she only had eyes for a wild and unkempt squiggle who never seemed to have anything on his mind at all.

They were everywhere together, singing and dancing and frolicking and laughing and laughing and lord knows what else. "He is so gay and free, so uninhibited and full of joy," she informed the line coolly,

"and you are as stiff as a stick. Dull. Conventional and repressed. Tied and trammeled. Subdued, smothered, and stifled. Squashed, squelched, and quenched."

I can't possibly show the interaction between the text and the illustrations here, but Juster has great fun. It's a picture-book for adults, erudite and hilarious, and succeeds beautifully.

(As an aside, both of these works were adapted to film by legendary Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones, of Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner fame.)

I have not read any of Juster's other, even more obscure fiction. There was a collection of stories, Alberic the Wise and Other Stories (1965), but everything else I can find seems to be either collections of cartoons with wordplay, or books for young children. I know nothing of these works. But I would argue that The Phantom Tollbooth and The Dot and the Line are sufficient.

(*) "To Euclid, no matter what they say"
(**) "To the vector belong the spoils"
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Re: Norton Juster

Postby owlcroft on Thursday, 27 November 2008, 5:21 am

Some long while ago now, I read, with much--perhaps overmuch--anticipation The Phantom Tollbooth, and was disappointed. It was harmless and mildly pleasant, but lacked that je ne sais quois that lifts a book above like of kind. A lot of people feel otherwise, so perhaps it's just an idiosyncracy, but there it is. There was nothing notably wrong with it, just nothing outstandingly right about it. . . .
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Re: Norton Juster

Postby DavidTate on Sunday, 30 November 2008, 2:32 am

Fair enough. Children's lit is very hit-or-miss for me, too, and not very well correlated with how well children like it.

I would, though, recommend that you free up the 20 minutes needed to read The Dot and the Line, should you ever get the chance.
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Re: Norton Juster

Postby DavidTate on Wednesday, 16 March 2011, 4:21 pm

It seems that someone has posted the 10-minute Chuck Jones animated adaptation of The Dot and the Line on YouTube, probably in egregious violation of copyright law. It is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmSbdvzbOzY.
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Re: Norton Juster

Postby DrRobert on Tuesday, 03 May 2011, 9:39 am

I think The Phantom Tollbooth may be the sort of book that is really a very outstanding book for children, but just misses the mark of greatness if read first as an adult. I remember reading it when I was about 10, and that it absolutely smacked me down with its awesomeness. It gave me a feeling that "Holy Cow! Here is what I've been waiting for all my life!" As an adult I have met many (invariably literary) people who have reported having the same experience. The book has remained monumental in my memory since. Recently, though, I read it aloud to my 8 and 10 year old children and felt a very mild disappointment along with my pleasure. I still enjoyed it, but at least parts of it seemed underdeveloped or TOO dependent on puns. I'd also add that it was even clearer to me than before that Jules Ffeiffer's illustrations are crucial to the whole work. Without them, the book is much flatter. Perhaps it tickles just the parts of cognition that develop in the pre-adolescent years, but doesn't have quite enough to keep stimulating the adult mind. That said, some of the characters still, for me, match the eternal quality of Lewis Carroll's characters. (Tock! Alec Bings! The Awful Dynne! The World's Shortest Giant! and, above all, the beloved Humbug!)
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Re: Norton Juster

Postby owlcroft on Wednesday, 04 May 2011, 5:40 pm

Perhaps it tickles just the parts of cognition that develop in the pre-adolescent years, but doesn't have quite enough to keep stimulating the adult mind.

I think it's something like that. Most "classics" of children's literature have some sort of overtones that make them acceptable to the adult mind, from Alice to The Hobbit. But Tollbooth seems well-enough packed for the young, but with no such overtones; for adults, it's sort of a ball of cotton candy. Or so I found it.
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