Title: The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
Book Beginnings quote:
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 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.
She stared at it dumbfounded. It was a pretty little book, modest, with a pleasing gray cover. The title, printed in clean, simple font, read Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life. This was astonishing! She's been thinking how she needed to tidy up, and now this?
Summary: I don't often do this, but I actually love the summary of this book provided by the publisher, so here it is. I'm hoping it is as enticing to you as it was to me.
After the tragic death of his beloved musician father, fourteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house--a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Although Benny doesn't understand what these things are saying, he can sense their emotional tone; some are pleasant, a gentle hum or coo, but others are snide, angry and full of pain. When his mother, Annabelle, develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous.
At first, Benny tries to ignore them, but soon the voices follow him outside the house, onto the street and at school, driving him at last to seek refuge in the silence of a large public library, where objects are well-behaved and know to speak in whispers. There, Benny discovers a strange new world, where "things happen." He falls in love with a mesmerizing street artist with a smug pet ferret, who uses the library as her performance space. He meets a homeless philosopher-poet, who encourages him to ask important questions and find his own voice amongst the many.
And he meets his very own Book--a talking thing--who narrates Benny's life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.
With its blend of sympathetic characters, riveting plot, and vibrant engagement with everything from jazz, to climate change, to our attachment to material possessions, The Book of Form and Emptiness is classic Ruth Ozeki--bold, wise, poignant, playful, humane and heartbreaking.
Review: In a lot of ways The Book of Form and Emptiness reminds me of another book by Ruth Ozeki that I love: A Tale for the Time Being. Both books have at their centers a flawed, but lovable young teenager; both jump around quite a bit between different settings and use different points of view; both have Zen Buddhist nuns involved in a bit of the wisdom dispensed throughout the story. And both involve a book, in this one, the book, Benny's Book, talks to him and plays the role on narrator on occasion. Here is an example of the book talking to Benny:
“Every person is trapped in their own particular bubble of delusion, and it's every person's task in life to break free. Books can help. We can make the past into the present, take you back in time and help you remember. We can show you things, shift your realities and widen your world, but the work of waking up is up to you.”
There are lots of characters but the principals are Benny and his mother, Annabelle. After Kenji, the father, dies, Benny starts hearing voices. His mother, wrapped up in her own troubles and her own terrible past, has a hard time being present to help him. But every once in a while she does make strong attempts. This quote reminded me how often schools fail students who are really struggling and then they make the student more of a victim than they were before:
“The point is that my son has a mental disability, Principal Slater, and you people know this, and if he’s skipping school it’s because the school is failing to meet his needs. So let’s talk about that, okay? Let’s talk about that.”
The Zen nun who writes a helpful little book called Tidy Magic: The Ancient Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life dispenses wisdom within the little, popular book and in chapters of her own. This little exchange with her master really got me thinking about all the junk I have lying around my house and about how stuff can really weigh you down (figuratively speaking.) Consumerism is a big theme in The Book of Form and Emptiness.
“But Hojo-san! The teacup isn’t broken!” He looked up, surprised. “To me, it is,” he said. “It is the nature of a teacup to be broken. That is why it is so beautiful now, and why I appreciate it when I can still drink from it.” He looked at it fondly, took a last sip, and then placed the empty cup carefully back on the tray. “When it is gone, it is gone.” That day, my teacher gave me a priceless lesson in the impermanence of form, and the empty nature of all things.”
This thought about stuff and things is emphasized by Benny since he can hear things talking:
“Things are needy. They take up space. They want attention, and they will drive you mad if you let them.”
People all have their own stories: The Aleph, a beautiful but troubled girl, who leaves little messages in books for Benny to find; the homeless man who is confined to a wheelchair and hangs out at the public library. On the surface he seems sinister but underneath, he is a poet and very wise and friendly. He helps Benny cope with the reality of the voices in his head and understands the value of 'story':
“God is a story,” he said. “I believe in stories, and God knows this. Stories are real, my boy. They matter. If you lose your belief in your story, you vill lose yourself.”
I'm guessing that The Book of Form and Emptiness is going to be one of those books which will take up residence in my head. One I will think back on quite often.