Posts Tagged ‘Phantom Tolbooth’

Today I am away from home, attending the Rainforest Writer’s Retreat in Washington. Ah, the bliss of days on end in which I have no obligations except those of basic upkeep and writing, writing, writing! After which I get to converse with other writers to my heart’s content.

In other news, my husband and I are currently reading my old favorite The Phantom Tolbooth, by Norton Juster, at bedtime. This book is full of gems of word play and absurdity, as well as surprisingly profound insights on the nature of the world. Here is one of my favorite passages:

“…from here that looks like a bucket of water,” he said, pointing to a bucket of water; “but from an ant’s point of view it’s a vast ocean, from an elephant’s just a cool drink, and to a fish, of course, it’s home. So, you see, the way you see things depends a great deal on where you look at them from.

This passage struck me strongly when I read it as a child, and every time I re-read it, I am reminded again of what an important insight it really is. So much of the world depends on your point of view, doesn’t it? Not only does this help me keep perspective on my own life and problems, but it’s also helpful when trying to understand other people. We all see things in our own special way, and it continues to amaze me how very different those ways can be.

When one stops to consider how mutable memory is, this train of thought gets even more interesting. Let’s say I attend a small event with three other people. Each of us will perceive the event from our own perspective to begin with. So maybe Person A is really happy because she got good news earlier today and has been really looking forward to this event. Person B is trying to be chipper but is experiencing some RSI pain in his arms and shoulders. Person C is deeply annoyed because he wanted to go to Japanese food but the group consensus was for Italian and now he’s worrying about eating too many carbs. And Person D worked really hard today and is having trouble transitioning from work mode to social mode.

Already we can expect that each person will experience the evening differently. But then ask them all about it three months later, and the stories will be even more different. Each person will have personal details they remember and others they forget. Some of them will misremember. And if they’re remembering together, one them may say, erroneously as it happens, “Didn’t Person B order gnocchi?” and then another will say, “Oh, that’s right” and in such a way the erroneous memory will spread. Each person’s perspective will shift depending on what they remember.

Norton Juster got it right. It all depends on your point of view, and many more things are subjective than we might at first realize. I often think about that bucket of water and remember that today, I might be the elephant and you might be the fish.

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