So first off, although it is likely no one will believe me, I’d like to point out that I did not, in fact, choose this book because I am a word nerd. I didn’t! Let it be known that although I remember a teacher hyping this classic up in grade 5 (for another class), I myself had never read it until this month. (I know, self-serving choice, or what?) Needless to say, I was delighted to finally settle in and read this book, and get to follow along on the very meta journey of Milo (and companions) on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason.
Originally published in 1961, this book has somehow survived the ages without dating itself. Unlike many other classic childrens’ stories, though, this one doesn’t focus on the traditional struggle of Good vs Evil. Rather, it’s about harnessing personal potential, with that particular battle against Self illustrated with wildly literalized idioms. (What’s that? A book about puns that I liked? I know. What can I say? I love kidlit.)
Next… well, I’m not really sure what comes next, having never done this before. Still, in the spirit of asking questions to spark “discussion”, here’s a few that I came up with while reading:
1 – What would have happened if Milo had met the Mathemagician first? His way of getting the second king to agree to his mission was to trick him with logic — would the word-smithing Azaz, unabridged King of Dictionopolis have been similarly swayed? What could he have done instead?
This probably speaks more to my science-leaning self than anything else, but I think it’s a valid question. Had Milo started off in Digitopolis, meeting the miners and other number-handling folk first, what different knowledge would he have kicked off his journey with? Would his trip through the forest have been different if he’d been keenly watching not so much what he said, or what words he was throwing around, as the measure of things? How far, how many, how high? I think the colour symphony would have been interesting with some math applied, and his interaction with the Thin Man an even more relevant exercise in relativity.
The Valley of Silence trek would have been different — more about measuring sounds (and their meaning) and perhaps a little less about the importance of sound in punctuating our stories and interactions.
No? I can’t make up my mind on this one. Also, I have no idea how you’d convince a dude who believes that Words Are Worth More Than Wisdom to agree with his sworn enemy.
2 – Had Milo started off in Digitopolis, who could have acted the part of the wise Crone since he wouldn’t have met the Which?
I imagine this would have taken the form of a type of wizard who could navigate the planes. (Some kind of pun on plains there? Something about math prairies maybe?) Possibly someone who would explain how every point has a logical address in space, and how that third dimension had been lost along with Rhyme and Reason. By answering my own question, though, it’s becoming obvious to me that given the age group (grades 4-6) that this book was intended for, it was much easier to explain the importance of words than it would have been to explain some math concepts that might not yet have been covered.
3 – When the monsters of Ignorance hack the Castle in the Air away from its earthly tether, the heroes debate what will happen to it. Rhyme states to let it go, with Reason following up that “No matter how beautiful it seems, it’s still nothing but a prison.”
What do you think of this statement: is it a comment on dreams (or “castles in the air”) in general, or just something specific to this story? Something else altogether?
Given that by daydreaming in the car Milo wound up in the Doldrums, it seems safe to say that Mr. Juster felt that life should be lived with intention — and who can disagree with that? — but I’m still a little torn on the idea of the castle in the air being a prison. After all, without dreams, how do you know which boundaries you want to push first?
Then again, maybe I should keep in mind that this is a book intended to inspire kids to want to learn and lighten up on the whole thing. After all, mindless daydreaming is the enemy of action with intention. So maybe Norton and I are on the same page after all. It’s just that I subscribe to a more Anne of Green Gables definition of “castle in the air”.
4 – What exactly was the role of the Humbug?
I really don’t get him. He is irritating and wheedling and hapless. He is not encouraging, lacks determination and grit, and basically seems to represent the inner voice that I, personally, need to quash every time I gird up to a task I don’t want to do. (Which, ha, doesn’t happen as often as it should. Stupid humbug.)
Oh, I just answered my own question? Well, I always figured I was the only one who had such a lazy inner voice they had to fight against. Am I wrong? (Please tell me I’m wrong; I’d love to know I’m not alone.)
5 – On a scale from 1 to 9, how would you rate this book? Alright, fine, I’m the only one who uses that scale. 1 to 5 is fine.
I give it a 4 (out of 5). Maybe a 4.2 if I were feeling overly mathematical. I love the cleverness and the silly wordplay, and I think the message is absolutely critical. With that said, however, it’s not a book I’m likely to curl up on the couch with anytime soon, although if I had children, I would definitely encourage them to give it a read.
All in, I had fun reading this book and — more surprisingly to me — I had a lot of fun really thinking about it, and trying to think about it critically. I don’t think I’ll ever get in the habit of doing that with everything I read (see above comments about laziness), but I have enjoyed the exercise. Similarly, I’m not sure if my “questions” have really helped me (or anyone else) think about the book, but if you guys have any, chime in!