The Book of Form and Emptiness

I was really looking forward to The Book of Form and Emptiness (2021) by Ruth Ozeki because I loved her 2013 A Tale for the Time Being. It both exceeded and fell far short of my expectations in different ways.

The great: I was hooked from the very first page. Ozeki has the book tell its own story, from the beginning–which I had never seen as a technique.

A book must start somewhere. One brave letter must volunteer to go first, laying itself on the line in an act of faith, from which a word takes heart and follows, drawing a sentence into its wake. From there, a paragraph amasses, and soon a page, and the book is on its way, finding a voice, calling itself into being.

The book of form and emptiness, page 1

We then find out the story is about Benny, a young boy who has lost his father, and Annabelle, his mother, who has lost the love of her life. They live in San Francisco in an apartment, and Annabelle cannot bear to throw anything out. This is a problem because Benny can hear inanimate objects–I took it as sort of an extrasensory perception–that he senses things most other people cannot.

While Annabelle struggles with her own grief, when Benny starts acting strangely, she struggles to get him the help he needs. But as a teenager, Benny thinks he can help himself, and he befriends a homeless, disabled poet, Slavoj, and the girl/woman artist that is Slavoj’s family, and who Benny falls a little in love with, although she has her own demons.

I loved it so much that I have 5 typed pages of quotes that I want to remember. The commentary on our consumerist society, on books, and on libraries was so well-done and beautifully written.

What makes a person want so much? What gives things the power to enchant, and is there a limit to the desire for more?
Books are intimately familiar with questions like these; they constitute the DNA of your oldest human stories, expressed in the tales our pages tell of jealous gods and gardens, talking snakes, and sweet, irresistible apples.

the book of form and emptiness, page 173

The disappointing: Ozeki relies, over and over, on anti-fat bias. It was so difficult to read Ozeki’s descriptions of Annabelle’s fatness, and the association of her weight gain with her grief. When Ozeki describes Benny as being embarrassed of the way his mother looks, it felt like a gut-punch, in a book that otherwise was thought-provoking and lovely. I wish more authors and publishers would engage sensitivity readers to deal with anti-fat bias before publication.

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