‘The Book of Form & Emptiness’ by Ruth Ozeki: A Book Review

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I’ve been having something of an existential crisis in recent weeks. This might be because I’ve reached one year shy of my half-century, it might be that all three of my children have reached double digits (well, nearly), or it might be because of the meandering and beguiling, “all possessions are rubbish,” tale told in The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. 

What Is The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki?

I exaggerate when I say this book suggests “all possessions are rubbish,” but Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest, one of the characters in the book is a Zen Buddhist priest, AND said priest has written a book in the story called “Tidy Magic.” Some thoughts on the futility of buying stuff were inevitable. 

The Book of Form & Emptiness focuses primarily on mother and son duo, Annabelle and Benny Oh. Husband and father, Kenji, was run over by a chicken truck, after falling into a drug-addled sleep in the alleyway beside the family house. 

As the book opens, print media is still a thing. Annabelle is a “clipper.” She spends her days sorting through newsprint, literally cutting and pasting important stories for the company she works for: a news aggregation service. As the novel progresses, the job becomes more and more obsolete. 

Benny Oh suffers severe psychological trauma after the death of his father. Annabelle transfers to working from home so that she can better look after him. This means huge amounts of print media are delivered to their house. The problem is Annabelle is a hoarder. She too has been left traumatized by the sudden death of her husband and she can’t bear to give things up. 

The novel is about how the pair of them initially fail to cope and how what follows causes them both to spiral almost to the point of total disaster. On the flip side, The Book of Form & Emptiness is about the importance of social connections, the impermanence of possessions, and the power of art. 

Why Read The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki?

The book is partially narrated by a book. Which is almost enough reason for a bibliophile to want to read it. The book is essentially Benny Oh’s life story. It is not the most reliable of narrators. Benny also narrates, and he too is unreliable in telling his story. This adds up to a shifting narrative that can occasionally be frustrating. 

It features a disparate bunch of characters that may or may not be part of Benny’s psychosis. One of these characters is named for a Borges short story, “The Aleph.” The Aleph (which I haven’t read), apparently, is a “point in space that contains all other points. Anyone who gazes into it can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping, or confusion.” The Borges story also contains a fictionalized version of the author. 

In turn, The Book of Form and Emptiness features a zen Buddhist monk, like Ozeki, who has written a book, like Ozeki. It is narrated by an omnipotent “book” that can claim to contain all the points in Benny’s life. A book that may or may not contain a fictionalized version of Benny. Confused yet? The book also contains lots of references to Walter Benjamin and includes a homeless poet and philosopher, who carries around his magnum opus in a briefcase, much like Walter Benjamin did, right before he died. 

Much like somebody’s life’s work in a briefcase, there is lots to unpack here! 

There were times when I feared The Book of Form and Emptiness was going to be too clever, if not for its own good, then at least for me. It drips with reference to Benjamin and Borges, writers who I knew existed but have never read. Fear not. Whilst I’m sure there are layers of deeper meaning that students of either author would enjoy, there is still much pleasure to be gained from reading this book. 

That said, it’s not the cheeriest of reads. After all, it deals with the trauma of the death of a loved one. The narrative offers a subtle examination of the depths of grief, and how society can steamroller over you if you don’t pull your socks up and carry on.

A big theme in the book is isolation; the emptiness in the title. Anabelle becomes increasingly isolated in her grief. She works from home in order to care for Benny, but as two quirky people, trying to come to terms with tragedy, they are almost entirely alone. It’s through the care of others that they can heal. As a parent, Annabelle’s attempts to connect with Benny are heartbreaking. Any parent of teenagers will recognize the enormity and difficulty of her task. 

One aspect of the book that hit home was Annabelle’s hoarding. Whilst I am not a hoarder, I do, like Annabelle, find solace in the prospect of new projects. The idea of being creative: painting models, playing games, writing GeekDad posts. Yet time often doesn’t allow me to meet my ambitions, which then makes me feel down, which feeds the cycle as I think up a new imaginative project to get me out of my rut. (He types, staring at his new Moonstone starter set).  

This gives rise to the dreaded “grey pile of shame,” a phenomenon that many tabletop gamers are familiar with. Piles of unpainted miniatures from games that seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s not just grey plastic. I have many books, and board games that I convince myself will definitely help me on my way to nirvana. Instead, my house becomes more cluttered and I become more dissatisfied. 

All this is encapsulated in The Book of Form and Emptiness. Does it give any answers? Well, yes and no. It examines the futility of buying your way to happiness. It tells us that consumerism is not the way to fulfillment, but it also stresses that the journey to happiness is a personal one. 

It has made me realize the importance and value of human interaction. During COVID lockdowns and subsequent no large gathering mandates, I strayed away from the small interactions that give life meaning. Replacing buying a new board game with going out for dinner. For a while, the board game felt like a win—it was cheaper, it made me happy and I didn’t have to drive anywhere to enjoy it. The hollow feeling that sits within, some two years later, exposes the lie. 

All this is further highlighted by the fact that since 2020 I have lost both of my parents, and had to move my sister to live closer to me because she is not able to look after herself. There are few things like a house clearance to make you realize the futility of owning “stuff.”

Which is a rather long-winded way, of saying that The Book of Form and Emptiness is likely to make you take stock and evaluate your life. Its quirky characters and meditative plot will stay with you long after you have closed its covers. The book won’t blow you over, but it will most definitely get under your skin and get you into that cluttered cupboard under the stairs. 

If you would like to pick up a copy of The Book of Form and Emptiness you can do so here, in the U.S., and here, in the UK. 

If you enjoyed this review, check out my other book reviews, here. 

The U.S. and UK Covers. Don’t buy both. They’ll just clutter up the place.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review.



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