Review: The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

Recommended? Yes!

Rating: 5/5

Who might like this? Fans of beautiful and engaging storytelling, who enjoy likeable, flawed characters. Also, those who love to have their minds messed with in the best possible way! I’m going to say it right at the beginning: Ruth Ozeki is fast becoming on of my favourite novelists, and this is only the second of her books I’ve read.


This article was originally published by The Mindful Word on March 19, 2022. 


This is a modern reading experience that speaks to deeper truths and Buddhist philosophy as a gift.

Ruth Ozeki has written a novel for fans of beautiful and engaging storytelling who enjoy likeable, flawed characters and would like to have their prose steeped in Buddhist philosophy. It's also, for those who love to have their minds messed with in the best possible way. The Book of Form and Emptiness, her most recent novel, has been nominated for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

We're introduced to three major characters: First, there's Benny Oh, a teen who has lost his father in a tragic accident and begins to hear objects speaking to him. He is labelled as having schizoaffective disorder. Is that true? Maybe, or perhaps he is simply a sensitive soul who can channel the objects around him, and give them voice.

His mother is Annabelle, who holds on to objects desperately and becomes a hoarder. Her collected objects speak to her, too, just in a different way. Finally, the Book, which just wants to be written and read. Yes, you read correctly: the Book is a major character. Snarky, wise and philosophical to boot.

This is a novel about objects and their people, and people and their objects. We impose meaning on objects, or we think we do. But what if objects also impose their meaning on us. It’s a two way street. They are our devices, and we are theirs. We need each other.

Is Benny writing the Book or is the Book writing Benny? Sometimes while reading, I didn’t know what was really happening and what was illusory.

The cast of supporting characters here is wonderful. The Aleph is a teen artist, but also homeless and addicted, and friends with The Bottleman, an old, wheelchair-bound Slavic homeless poet. Benny’s safe place is the local library, and they befriend him there, where they all hang out frequently. As Benny struggles with the voices he hears, the old poet charges Benny to find a philosophical question to test if he is truly mad:
“But that’s the PROBLEM!” Benny wailed, clapping his hands over his ears. “I don’t know what’s real and what’s not!”
“Yes!” the old man exclaimed. “Precisely! Now you hef your question!”...
…”I do?”
“Most certainly,” the Bottleman said. “A good question. Very philosophical.”
“What is it?”
“Vat is real?”
“But I told you, I don’t know what’s real!”
“Of course not! That is what mekks it an excellent question.”
Even as Benny spends time trying to answer his question–What is real?–his voices give agency to the objects around him, making them characters in this story too. Here, scissors want to stab, bats want to hit, boots are made for walking, and vacuum cleaners want to clean. After being beaten up one evening, Benny finds the Aleph and the Bottleman at the library. He tells the Bottleman:
”Our vacuum cleaner at home doesn't want to clean,” he said. “It’s never wanted to clean. It doesn’t suck.”
“Sad,” the old man said. “A vacuum that doesn’t suck hes lost its raison d’etre. A boot that kicks a boy hes lost its moral compass.”
I found the tone of this book to be exuberant. Even when sad things were happening, even when there was trauma on the page, one felt safe. I think it's because the message is to wake up to the fact that we are all connected, not isolated beings suffering on our own. Everyone and everything here, even the most minor characters, are held by Ozeki, and written by the Book, with great kindness.

Kindness makes me think about Metta. Metta is a Pali word that means loving-kindness, good will, or friendliness. It is one of the four “sublime states'' cultivated in Buddhism, and it’s quite a beautiful concept, along with having practical use. I have made friends with Metta by focusing on the notion of friendliness and kindness, and am trying to approach others and the world with this lens. It’s hard sometimes!

Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest ordained in 2010, so perhaps it’s not surprising that The Book of Form and Emptiness felt imbued with Metta, as if the whole tome was bathed in it. Because the Book is a character, I sometimes felt as if I was holding Metta in my hands, even if it was just a library book. Weird but wonderful. This made the reading experience quite lovely.

Ozeki writes of an experience that Benny has at one point while sitting alone in the library, where it seems that he is becoming mentally unglued…but the Book narrates this scene and calls this being Unbound. We might call it the realisation that everything is connected:
“How impossible it is to put into words this infinitude of the Unbound! In a single instant we witnessed constellations on the brink of constellating, assemblages in flux. We perceived the dynamic flow of vibrant matter, materialising as a marble or a baseball bat, a sneaker or a story, a jazz riff or a viral contagion, an ovum or an antique spoon…In that Unbound state that night you encountered all that was and ever could be: form and emptiness, and the absence of form and emptiness. You felt what it was to open completely, to merge with matter and let everything in.”
I'd love to talk about form and emptiness as a Buddhist concept here, but I think I’m going to leave it be, because I don’t totally understand it, and even superficial research on the topic produces pages-long complexities. Also, if I wrote about everything the book made me ponder, this review would probably go on far, far too long.

As one character notes near the end of the Book when talking about words, “They need boundaries. Without some discipline and constraint, they can just go and say anything they please.” Ah, words. They just want to be written. And I would love to write more and more about The Book of Form and Emptiness, but I will contain myself and simply encourage you to read it yourself.


As an addendum, here are some of my favourite quotes:

“Inside? Outside? What is the difference and how can you tell? When a sound enters your body through your ears and merges with your mind, what happens to it? Is it still a sound then, or has it become something else? When you eat a wing or an egg or a drumstick, at what point is it no longer a chicken? When you read these words on a page, what happens to them, when they become you?”

“What Slavoj said was this: People are born from the womb of the world with different sensitivities, and the world needs every single one of you to experience it fully, so that it might be fully experienced. If even one person were left out, the world would be diminished. And he said you don’t have to worry about being creative. The world is creative, endlessly so, and its generative nature is part of who you are.”

“...story is more than just a discarded by-product of your bare experience. Story is its own bare experience. Fish swim in water, unaware that it is water. Birds fly in air, unaware that it is air. Story is the air that you people breathe, the ocean you swim in, and we books are the rocks along the shoreline that channel your currents and contain your tides.”

“Oh, Benny, no.
We knew this was coming, but can’t we reconsider?”

“Why was it that women could never work hard enough to quiet their nagging fear that they were not enough? That they were falling behind? That they could and should be better? No wonder they wanted simple rules to govern the way T-shirts should be folded, children raised, careers managed, lives lived. They needed to believe there was a right way and a wrong way–there had to be! Because if there was a right way, then perhaps they could find it, and if they found it and learned the rules, then all the pieces of their lives would fall into place and they would be happy.
Such delusion.”

“And then, when she’s finished and the book ventures out into the world, the readers take their turn, and here another kind of commingling occurs. Because the reader is not a passive receptacle for the book's contents. Not at all. You are our collaborators, our conspirators, breathing new life into us. And because every reader is unique, each of you makes each of us mean differently, regardless of what’s written on our pages. Thus, one book, when read by different readers, becomes different books, becomes an ever-changing array of books that flows through human consciousness like a wave.”