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The Book of Form and Emptiness: A Novel by [Ruth Ozeki]

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The Book of Form and Emptiness: A Novel Kindle Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 1,257 ratings

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From the Publisher

No one writes like Ruth Ozeki — Matt Haig

Editorial Reviews


Praise for The Book of Form and Emptiness:

“[A] Borgesian, Zen Buddhist parable of consumerism . . . [Ozeki] endows objects and animals with anima, the breath of life . . . [she] ensouls the world . . . There’s powerful magic here . . . Ozeki is unusually patient with her characters, even the rebarbative ones, and she is able to record the subtle peculiarities of other classes of beings that more overeager writers would probably miss . . . Ozeki gives us a metaphor for our very own American consumption disorder, our love-hate relationship with the stuff we produce and can’t let go of.”
New York Times Book Review

“A masterful meditation on consumer culture . . . This novel’s meditative pacing perfectly suits its open-hearted contemplation. The book’s self-awareness allows it to comically hedge and tiptoe, to digress into diatribes into the ‘false dichotomies and hegemonic hierarchies of materialist colonizers’ only to catch itself and sheepishly apologize: ‘Sorry. That turned into a rant. No reader likes a rant. As a book, we should know better.’ 
The Book of Form and Emptiness is concerned foremost with the outsiders in our world, the ones who hear voices, who are friendless, who fall into addiction and self-harm. It’s concerned, too, with the ultimate outsiders, the objects that we produce and discard, produce and discard. It is both profound and fun, a loving indictment of our consumer culture. As the novel asks the reader turning the pages, ‘has it ever occurred to you that books have feelings, too?’” USA Today

“[A] tale of sorrow, danger and tentative redemption serves as the springboard for extended meditations on the interdependence of all beings, the magic of books, the disastrous ecological and spiritual effects of unchecked consumerism and more . . . one of Ozeki’s gifts as a novelist is the ability to enfold provocative intellectual material within a human story grounded in sharply observed social detail . . . The Book itself has a marvelous voice: adult, ironic, affirming at every turn the importance of books as a repository of humanity’s deepest wisdom and highest aspirations.”
Washington Post

“There has never been a more timely novel. . . a beautiful, funny, sad, haunting, and extremely moving narrative . . . Ozeki’s commitment to having all her novels be co-productions created by multiple figures reaches its most dazzling manifestation in a book and a protagonist, mutually engendered.”
Los Angeles Review of Books

“Objects and ideas come to life in [
The Book of Form and Emptiness] . . . a vivid story of fraught adolescence, big ideas and humanity’s tenuous hold on a suffering planet . . . Ozeki, an imaginative writer with a subversive sense of humor, has an acute grasp of young people’s contemporary dilemmas . . . This would be a great book to read in tandem with an adolescent in your life, a potential classic for the young-adult audience . . . [Ozeki offers] a profound understanding of the human condition and a gift for turning it into literature.” Los Angeles Times

“Ozeki has shifted her readers’ way of perceiving what is 'normal' through a sort of slow, capillary action
. Her books are not didactic, but they are useful; they’re not mission-driven, but they are richly moral. She writes urgently about the environment—you leave an Ozeki book knowing more about ocean contamination or factory farming—and her novels tend to include a painful parent-child rupture as well as a burbling stream of absurdist humor . . . Ozeki started writing The Book of Form and Emptiness eight years ago, but it is eerily suited to what readers are going through now, a quantum companion to A Tale for the Time Being: If time is part of healing, sorting through matter—through stuff—is part of mourning.” New York Magazine

“Heartfelt . . . Ozeki, a practicing Buddhist priest, infuses her story with Zen philosophy, using themes of mindfulness and our connection to the living world to highlight pressing modern concerns like climate change, capitalism and the function of art. Inventive, vivid and propelled by a sense of wonder,
The Book of Form and Emptiness will delight younger and older readers alike.” TIME

“[It’s hard] not to like Ozeki’s calm, dry, methodical good humour and wit, her love affairs with linguistics and jazz and the absurd, her cautious optimism, her gentle parodies . . . [she] is carefully celebrating difference, not patronizing dysfunction. Out of their fractured relations, she makes something so satisfying that it gave me the sense of being addressed not by an author but by a world, one that doesn’t quite exist yet, except in tenuous parallel to ours: a world built out of ideas that spill into the text like a continuous real-time event.”
The Guardian

“An ambitious and ingenious novel that presents a stinging exploration of grief [and] a reflection on our relationship to objects . . . combine[s] daunting intellectual complexity and accessible big-heartedness . . . The most endearing aspect of Ozeki’s novel is its unabashed celebration of words, writing, and reading . . . Ozeki’s playfulness and zaniness, her compassion and boundless curiosity, prevent the novel from ever feeling stiff or pretentious. Clever without being arch, metafictional without being arcane, dark without being nihilistic,
The Book of Form and Emptiness is an exuberant delight.” Boston Globe

“This book ponders the very nature of things . . . Do inanimate items possess a life force? How do we distinguish acute sensitivity from mental illness? These questions fuel a searching novel, one that combines a coming-of-age tale with an ode to the printed page. . . Ozeki's incisive on matters like consumerism and climate change. Meanwhile, her ruminations on life's greatest mysteries provide an elegant foundation for an intriguing story.”

“In giving the Book a point of view, Ozeki creates a loquacious, animated voice with ideas about other books, the past, the need for human stories and the mutual needs of humans and books. . . With this well-developed voice, Ozeki plays humorously with ideas about what a novel is — about the development of a story, how it gets told, who tells it, who hears it and how books affect people . . . Ozeki, who is a Zen Buddhist priest and filmmaker, takes up big ideas about this moment on our planet, but also offers close descriptions of memorable images that make the prose absorbing . . . These images reverberate long after the reading, speaking to Ozeki’s broad and benign vision of connected beings.”
Seattle Times

“What an odd and tender and lovely novel this is . . . Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest in addition to being an accomplished author, and this rambling, shaggy narrative has a number of Zen ideas to play with . . . In Ozeki’s world, books are urgent and powerful regardless of genre.”

The Book of Form and Emptiness indeed has everything one wants from a novel—sympathetic and interesting characters, a propulsive story that is heartbreaking but also playful and affirming, artful structure and skillful point of view—all while wrestling with life’s big questions. The novel’s engagement with issues of climate change and consumerism culture give it an urgency, but its whimsical and epic story makes it the kind of book to settle into, where you both want to keep reading and never want it to end. It’s a novel that reminds you of the power of books, exploring the magical exchange between writer and reader.” Fiction Writers Review
“On the surface, Ozeki’s novel is about a grief-stricken family struggling to find meaning in the aftermath of a tragedy. But dig deeper and the story is an intricately layered commentary on modern society and the significance it puts on material objects, a study on subjectivity and the nature of reality. All the while, it’s a book about the unknown, all-knowing realms of the imagination…When spending time in Ozeki’s world, the empirically provable and quantifiable become less important, and the truths of our inner lives grow louder, if only we can honor those voices.”
Japan Times

“With her characteristic charm, empathy, and perspicacity, Ozeki writes Benny’s story of learning to hear, and manage, the voices, and hear himself along the way.”
The Millions

“[A] beautiful, heartbreaking, and hopeful novel”
Reader’s Digest

“[A] poignant and funny story.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“If what you need right now is to sink into a big, warm, literary bath, this is the book for you. It’s not that Ozeki’s latest novel isn’t challenging, it’s just that it manages to be so while also being pure pleasure, especially if you’re the kind of person who once had mostly books for friends . . . It’s a big book in more ways than one, complex and ambitious and wide-ranging, but honestly also just so charming I found it hard to walk away from, even when I was done.”
—Emily Temple, Lit Hub

“Spectacular . . . this novel is filled with hope, compassion and more than a little wonder . . . Ozeki's books consistently nourish the soul.”
Shelf Awareness (starred)

“With all confidence, I can say that
The Book of Form and Emptiness is very real. It’s a wonderful, heartwarming story of emotional growth filled with characters as real as anyone you would meet on the street. Except we are meeting them through the Book. And the Book, as we learn, knows all.” Washington Independent Review of Books

“Ozeki’s illuminating postmodern latest [...] explores themes of mourning, madness, and the powers of the imagination . . . Ozeki playfully and successfully breaks the fourth wall [...] and she cultivates a striking blend of young adult fiction tropes with complex references to Walter Benjamin, Zen Buddhism, and Marxist philosophy. This is the rare work that will entertain teenagers, literary fiction readers, and academics alike.”
Publishers Weekly

“[Ozeki] writes with bountiful insight, exuberant imagination, and levitating grace about psychic diversity, our complicated attitude toward our possessions, street protests, climate change, and such wonders as crows, the moon, and snow globes. Most inventively, Ozeki celebrates the profound relationship between reader and writer. This enthralling, poignant, funny, and mysterious saga, thrumming with grief and tenderness, beauty and compassion, offers much wisdom.”
Booklist (starred)

“A great premise, one that perfectly captures how it feels to be a child falling into a lifelong love of reading. It’s a book for book people, exploring how books can offer meaning and – in this case, literally – speak to us.”
“A meditative tribute to books, libraries, and Zen wisdom.”

“This compassionate novel of life, love and loss glows in the dark. Its strange, beautiful pages turn themselves. If you’ve lost your way with fiction over the last year or two, let
The Book of Form and Emptiness light your way home.” —David Mitchell, Booker Prize-finalist author of Cloud Atlas and Utopia Avenue

“Heart-breaking and heart-healing—a book to not only keep us absorbed but also to help us think and love and live and listen. No one writes quite like Ruth Ozeki and
The Book of Form and Emptiness is a triumph.” —Matt Haig, New York Timesbestselling author of The Midnight Library

“This is both an extremely vivid picture of a small family enduring unimaginable loss, and a very powerful meditation on the way books can contain the chaos of the world and give it meaning and order. Annabelle and Benny Oh try to stay afloat in a sea of things, news, substances, technological soullessness, and psychiatric quagmires, and the way they learn to live and breathe and even swim through it all feels like the struggle we all face.
The Book of Form and Emptiness builds on the themes of A Tale for the Time Being, and ratifies Ozeki as one of our era’s most compassionate and original minds.” —Dave Eggers, author of The Circle and The Parade

“Once again, Ozeki has created a masterpiece. Her generous heart, remarkable imagination, and brilliant mind light up every page.”
—Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

“Ozeki has done it again. This time she crosses into new dimensions, breathing life into pages, enticing us into an intimate world. Richly imagined, gorgeously executed,
The Book of Form and Emptiness is a remarkable book.” —David Eagleman, acclaimed neuroscientist and author of Livewired

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.





Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's

passion borders on the chaos of memories.


-Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library"


The Book




So, start with the voices, then.


When did he first hear them? When he was still little? Benny was always a small boy and slow to develop, as though his cells were reluctant to multiply and take up space in the world. It seems he pretty much stopped growing when he turned twelve, the same year his father died and his mother started putting on weight. The change was subtle, but Benny seemed to shrink as Annabelle grew, as if she were metabolizing her small son's grief along with her own.


Yes. That seems right.


So, perhaps the voices started around then, too, shortly after Kenny died? It was a car accident that killed him-no, it was a truck. Kenny Oh was a jazz clarinetist, but his real name was Kenji, so we'll call him that. He played swing mostly, big band stuff, at weddings and bar mitzvahs and in campy downtown hipster clubs, where the dudes all wore beards and porkpie hats and checkered shirts and mothy tweed jackets from the Salvation Army. He'd been playing a gig, and afterward he went out drinking or drugging or whatever he did with his musician friends-just a little toot, but enough so that on his way home, when he stumbled and fell in the alley, he didn't see the necessity of getting up right away. He wasn't far from home, only a few yards from the rickety gate that led to the back of his house. If he'd managed to crawl a bit further, he would have been okay, but instead he just lay there on his back, in a dim pool of light cast by the streetlamp above the Gospel Mission Thrift Shop dumpster. The long chill of winter had begun to lift, and a spring mist hung in the alleyway. He lay there, gazing up at the light and the tiny particles of moisture that swarmed brightly in the air. He was drunk. Or high. Or both. The light was beautiful. Earlier in the evening, he'd had a fight with his wife. Maybe he was feeling sorry. Maybe in his mind he was vowing to be better. Who knows what he was doing? Maybe he fell asleep. Let's hope so. In any case, that's where he was still lying an hour or so later, when the delivery truck came rattling down the alleyway.


It wasn't the truck driver's fault. The alley was filled with ruts and potholes. It was littered with half-emptied garbage bags, food waste, sodden clumps of clothes and broken appliances, which the dumpster divers had left behind. In the flat, gray light of the drizzling dawn, the truck driver couldn't distinguish between the debris and the musician's slim body, which by then was covered in crows. The crows were Kenji's friends. They were just trying to help by keeping him warm and dry, but everyone knows that crows love garbage. Is it any wonder that the driver mistook Kenji for a garbage bag? The driver hated crows. Crows were bad luck, and so he aimed his truck right at them. The truck was carrying crates of live chickens to the Chinese slaughterhouse at the end the alleyway. He stepped on the gas and felt the body bump beneath the wheels as the crows flew up in front of his windshield, obscuring his view and causing him to lose control and careen into the loading dock of the Eternal Happiness Printing Company Ltd. The truck tipped, and the crates of chickens went flying.


The noise of squawking birds woke Benny, whose bedroom window overlooked the dumpster. He lay there, listening, and then the back door slammed. A high, thin cry rose from the alley, uncoiling like a rope, like a living tentacle, snaking up into his window and hooking him, drawing him from bed. He went to the window, parted the curtains, and peered down into the street. The sky was just growing light. He could see the truck on its side, wheels spinning, and the air was filled with flapping wings and flying feathers, although, being cage-raised, these chickens couldn't really fly. They didn't really even look like birds. They were just these white Tribble-like things, scrabbling away into the shadows. The thin cry tightened like a wire, drawing Benny's eyes to a spectral figure, enveloped in a cloud of diaphanous white, the source of the sound, the source of his world: his mother, Annabelle.


She stood there in her nightgown, alone in the pool of light cast by the streetlamp. All around her there was motion, feathers drifting like snow, but she stood perfectly still, like a frozen princess, Benny thought. She was looking down at something on the ground, and in a flash, he knew that something was his father. From where he watched, high up in his window, he couldn't see his father's face, but he recognized his legs, which were bent and kicking, just like they did when Kenji was dancing, only now he was lying on his side.


His mother took a step forward. "Nooo!" she cried, and fell to her knees. Her thick golden hair spilled down her shoulders, catching the light from the streetlamp and curtaining her husband's head. She leaned over, crooning as she tried to gather him up. "No, Kenji, no, no, please, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it. . . ."


Did he hear her? If he had opened his eyes just then, he would have seen his wife's lovely face hanging over him like a pale moon. Maybe he did. He would have seen the crows, perched on the rooftops and the swaying powerlines, watching. And maybe, looking over his wife's shoulder and beyond, he would have seen his son watching, too, from his distant window. Let's say he did see, because his dancing legs slowed then, stopped kicking and grew still. If, in that moment, Annabelle was Kenji's moon, then Benny was his distant star, and seeing him there, twinkling brightly in the pale dawn sky, he made an effort to move his arm, to raise his hand, to wiggle his fingers.


Like he was waving to me, Benny thought later. Like he was waving goodbye.



Kenji died on the way to the hospital, and the funeral was held the following week. It was up to Annabelle to make the arrangements, but she wasnÕt much for planning these kinds of things. Kenji was the outgoing one, and as a couple theyÕd never entertained or had people over. She had few, if any, friends.


The funeral director asked her many questions about her loved one's family and religious faith, which she had trouble answering. Kenji didn't have any family that she knew of. He was born in Hiroshima, but his parents had died when he was young. His sister, who was still an infant at the time, had been sent to live with his aunt and uncle, while Kenji had been raised by their grandparents in Kyoto. He rarely talked about his childhood, except to say that his grandparents were very traditional and strict and he didn't get along with them, but of course they were dead now, too. Presumably his sister was still alive, but he'd lost touch with her. Early in their marriage, when Annabelle asked, he just smiled and stroked her cheek and said that she was all the family he needed.


As for faith, she knew his grandparents had been Buddhist, and once he told her about a time in college when he'd lived in a Zen monastery. She remembered how he'd laughed. So funny, right? Me, a monk! And she laughed, too, because he didn't seem at all monkish. He said he didn't need religion because he had jazz. The only religious thing he owned were some prayer beads, which he sometimes wore around his wrist. They were pretty, but she'd never seen him use them for praying. Given his Buddhist roots, it seemed wrong to have a Christian minister preside at his funeral, and so in answer to the director's questions, Annabelle said no, there was no family, no faith, and there would be no service. The director seemed disappointed.


"And on your side?" he asked solicitously, and when she hesitated, he added, "At times like these, it's good to have family-"


Memory flickered, ghostlike. She thought of her mother's shrunken body in the hospital bed. Her stepfather's dark shadow, looming in her doorway. She shook her head. "No," she said, firmly, cutting him off. "I said no family."


Couldn't he see? That she and Kenji were alone in the world, and this was what united them until Benny came along.


The funeral director glanced at his watch and moved on. He wondered about her thoughts regarding a viewing. Again, she hesitated, and so he explained. Viewing a loved one's carefully restored remains could reduce the trauma that witnessing a tragic accident often caused. It would ease their painful memories and help those left behind accept the reality of the physical death. The viewing room was intimate and tastefully appointed. The funeral home would be happy to provide liquid refreshments for their guests, a wide selection of teas, coffee with an assortment of delicious flavored creamers, as well as some cookies, perhaps?


Creamers? she thought, trying not to smile. Seriously? She wanted to remember this to tell Kenji later-it was just the kind of absurd thing that would make him laugh-but the director was waiting, so she readily agreed that yes, cookies would be nice. He made a note and then inquired as to her wishes regarding the final disposition of her loved one's remains. She sat on the edge of the overstuffed couch, heard herself answering yes to a cremation and no to a burial plot or a shelf in the crypt, when suddenly a thought arose: that she couldn't tell Kenji about the delicious flavored creamers because Kenji was dead. This thought was quickly followed by a succession of others: that the loved one whose remains they were discussing was Kenji, and that these remains were the remains of Kenji's body, the same beloved body that she knew so well and which, when she closed her eyes, she could picture so clearly, the sinewy muscles of his shoulders, the smooth tawny skin, the slope of his naked back.


She excused herself and asked if she might use the washroom. Certainly, the director said, and pointed her down the carpeted hallway. She closed the door behind her. Inside, scented fresheners infused the air from every wall socket. She dropped to her knees in front of the toilet bowl and vomited into the bright blue sanitized water.



Now KenjiÕs body lay in an open coffin in a parlor-like room at the funeral home. When Benny and Annabelle arrived for the viewing, the funeral director ushered them in and then backed away, discreetly, to give them a moment. Annabelle took a deep breath. Gripping her sonÕs elbow, she started toward the coffin. Benny had never walked like this before, with his mother holding on to his arm like he was the one in charge. He felt like a handrail or a banister. Stiffly, he supported her, guiding her forward, and then they were standing side by side at the coffinÕs edge.


Kenji was a small man, grown smaller now in death. He was dressed in the light blue seersucker blazer that Annabelle had chosen for him, the one he wore with black jeans when he played summer weddings, minus the porkpie hat. His clarinet lay across his chest. Annabelle exhaled, a long, soft, punctured sigh.


"He looks okay," she whispered. "Like he's just sleeping. And the coffin's nice, too." When Benny didn't answer, she tugged on his arm. "Don't you think?"


"I guess," Benny said. He studied the body, lying there in the fancy coffin. The eyes were closed, but the face didn't look alive enough to be asleep. Didn't look alive enough to be dead, even. Didn't look like something that had ever lived. Someone had used makeup to cover up the bruises, but his dad would never have worn makeup. Someone had brushed the long black hair and arranged it loosely on the satin pillow. Kenji only wore his hair loose and hanging down like that when he was relaxing at home. In public, he always tied it back in a thick, black ponytail. All these details proved to Benny that the thing in the coffin was not his father. "You going to burn his clarinet, too?"


They sat in stiff folding chairs off to the side and waited. People started to arrive. Their ancient Chinese landlady, Mrs. Wong. Two of Annabelle's coworkers. Kenji's bandmates and his friends from the club scene. The musicians stood inside the doorway, looking like they wanted to leave, but the funeral director urged them forward. Nervously, they wandered up to the coffin. Some of them lingered and stared. Others talked to the corpse, or cracked a joke-Seriously, dude, a chicken truck?-which Annabelle pretended not to hear, and then spotting the refreshment table, they headed quickly toward it, pausing to say a few awkward words to her and to give Benny a quick hug and a pat on the head. Annabelle was gracious. These were her husband's friends. Benny was twelve and hated the pats, but the hugs he hated worse. Some of the band members punched him on the shoulder. He didn't mind the punches.


Maybe it was the clarinet in the coffin that gave someone the idea, but as more people trickled in, more instruments started to appear, and then a couple of the band members set up in a corner of the room and began to play. Mellow jazz, nothing flashy. More guests arrived. When a bottle of whiskey showed up on the refreshment table, next to the creamers, the funeral director looked like he might object, but the trumpet player took him aside and talked to him. He receded, and the band played on.


Kenji knew people who knew how to party, and so when it was time to transport their friend's body to the crematorium, the musicians canceled the hearse and took matters into their own hands. Annabelle went along with them. The coffin was heavy, but Kenji added little to its weight, and so they were able to lift it, taking turns carrying it on their shoulders, New Orleans-style, through the narrow back alleys and the dark, rain-slick streets. Annabelle and Benny walked with them. Someone ushered them to the front of the procession, just behind the coffin, and handed Benny a bright red umbrella, which he held up high above his mother's head, proudly, like a brave flag or a pennant, until his arm stiffened and he thought it would break.

--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

Product details

  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B08VW51L98
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Books (September 21, 2021)
  • Publication date ‏ : ‎ September 21, 2021
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Text-to-Speech ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Screen Reader ‏ : ‎ Supported
  • X-Ray ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 560 pages
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,257 ratings

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Ruth Ozeki (born March 12, 1956) is an American-Canadian novelist, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest. She worked in commercial television and media production for over a decade and made several independent films before turning to writing fiction.

Bio from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Photo by Latrippi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

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5.0 out of 5 stars So much to appreciate in this outstanding novel by Ruth Ozeki
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