“There once was a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always.” So begins "The Phantom Tollbooth," Norton Juster’s 1961 classic, and the book I have concluded has influenced me more profoundly than any other.  

The question seems deceptively simple: what is the book or other work of literature that has most influenced you? I believe everybody has at least one—even self-proclaimed non-readers—but I also think they can be hard to spot and even harder to talk about. The works we choose to read reflect our individual psyches within our social and intellectual worlds.

"The Phantom Tollbooth" is one of the most literal explorations of an individual person within his social and intellectual realms, and that is perhaps why I love it so dearly. As Milo travels through the city of Dictionopolis, through the Doldrums and towards the Sea of Knowledge, he finds the world anew through intellectual engagement, heavy sarcasm and pure whimsy. He sees the beauty of the princesses Rhyme and Reason, he comes to term with expectations and he crunches on the tasty, delicious letters in the Word Market.

We, like Milo, are surrounded by words, and those words are taking on new shapes: memes and lengthy opinion pieces flash across screens, the news is stuffed with “alternative facts” and online self-publication is an ever-growing tool for disseminating information. Being an engaged, thoughtful and critical reader is continually more and more important. What we read can shape our ideas, opinions and understanding of the world. Princess Rhyme says it best: “It’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”  

The written word responds to its reader like a painting responds to its viewer; every reader draws her own meaning from a text or her own particular emotions from a story.

I first read "The Phantom Tollbooth" some time in elementary school. I was hard-pressed to choose it for this column over other books that have been incredibly influential in my life: Albert Camus’ "The Stranger," "Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison, Anne Frank’s incomparable "The Diary of a Young Girl." The runner-up was "Communion: The Female Search for Love," by bell hooks, which transfixed me with its masterful rendering of gender politics and intersectional feminism. I have recommended that book to so many people that my personal copy has long since fallen into others’ hands.

But my infatuation with "The Phantom Tollbooth" can be summed up in one quote. That quote frames my vision for this column, which will focus on coercing other people into giving me book recommendations (including from childhood!), and then reading those books, thinking about them, (hopefully) enjoying them and writing about them.

Some recommendations I’ve gotten for this column so far include "Bossypants" by Tina Fey, "To The Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf and "Holes" by Louis Sachar. They are as different as their recommenders, and all deserving of a good read.

My favorite quote is as follows: “You can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge and not get wet.” That sea encompasses "Communion," "The Stranger" and so many other works of literature. My conclusion in this mixed-up world is that reading is good, and learning is good and giant clock dogs are also really good. If you haven’t read "The Phantom Tollbooth," it is wryly funny and charming and could possibly change your life—try it.