• The Book of Form and Emptiness

  • A Novel
  • By: Ruth Ozeki
  • Narrated by: Kerry Shale, Ruth Ozeki
  • Length: 18 hrs and 50 mins
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars (589 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

“No one writes like Ruth Ozeki—a triumph.” —Matt Haig, New York Times bestselling author of The Midnight Library

“Inventive, vivid, and propelled by a sense of wonder.” —TIME

“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  

Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction

A boy who hears the voices of objects all around him; a mother drowning in her possessions; and a Book that might hold the secret to saving them both—the brilliantly inventive new novel from the Booker Prize-finalist Ruth Ozeki

One year after the death of his beloved musician father, thirteen-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. 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.

©2021 Ruth Ozeki (P)2021 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

Named a Best Book of the Year by Time, The Guardian, Good Housekeeping, and Bookpage

“[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 

What listeners say about The Book of Form and Emptiness

Average Customer Ratings
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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Good narrator, terrible voices

The narrator isn't bad. He does well with actual narration, and the Book sections. But literally every other character voice is awful, some borderline unbearable. When Benny gets emotional, it's awful. and every freaking word out of Annabelle's mouth. She's in the running for worst audiobook character voice I've ever heard (and when she sings? oh GOD there are moments when she sings, and I wanted to tear the headphones out of my ears). Definitely maybe consider just reading this one.

26 people found this helpful

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Reader makes women sound like cartoons

If I weren't already a fan of Ruth Ozeki's (A Tale for the Time Being is one of my favorite books), I would have given up on this within the first ten minutes of the audio narration. Ozeki herself is a magnificent reader of her own work, but most of this new book is read by a male narrator who changes the tenor of his voice according to the gender of the speaker, making most of the female characters seem like whiny caricatures. His attempts at accents are equally cringe-inducing and stereotyped. I would much rather have a reader read in their own voice and accent than try and fail to act out an idea of what characters sound like. The story itself is worth sticking with—as humane and nuanced, dark and ecstatic as Ozeki's earlier work. If you have a choice, pick up the print edition.

20 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Enjoyed the story but the reading…

I almost ditched this book because of the reader’s execution of two characters: the mother Annabelle and her son Benny. They are the main characters but I felt almost that the reader himself disliked them and wanted them to come off as unlikable, irritating people. I hated how he portrayed them. The reader was clearly capable of a wide range of voice characterizations so I don’t know why he voiced Annabelle and Benny as he did. Horrible.

9 people found this helpful

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Narrator’s silly voices off putting

I really enjoy Ruth Ozeki’s work, and the narrator has a great voice. It’s the voices he uses for the two main characters… they are obnoxious, and it got old quickly. I missed parts of the story line because I had to skip ahead.

7 people found this helpful

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Masterful writing

I can't express how much I like this book. It's broad and deep, the characters are well drawn, and the plot is enticing.
Annabelle's voice didn't work for me at first, as it didn't seem to match her character. After getting more into the story, it does make sense. This is a small thing and shouldn't stop anyone from exploring this book.

7 people found this helpful

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one opinion

The story was interesting and moved along nicely. The portrayal of women's voices was irritating.

4 people found this helpful

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Love the book. Dislike the female and som voices

I love Ruth Ozeki’s writing. But I wish the mother’s voice was a woman, and not that fake sounding sweet voice. Really cloying. If I didn’t love the nook so much it might have made me put it down.

4 people found this helpful

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Do yourself a favor and listen to this book.

One of the Best Books I’ve listened to this year. There are these beautiful little moments in the book - details easily unnoticed that are so “normal” to all of our lives but delivered with a profound elegance. This book is difficult to adequately describe but it is without a doubt - beautiful, engaging and honest.

4 people found this helpful

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well done

although I usually prefer to sit and turn the pages if a book and absorb the story that way personal circumstances meant this was a book I listened to

and yes the characters were fully realized but in truth there is so much wisdom and insight to be gained from what Ruth Ozeki has penned that now I am going to buy the book so I can go back and see the words and mark all those passages that made me catch ny breath so I can revisit them
My gratitude to Ruth Ozeki for letting this book speak

3 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Kerry Shale is outstanding!

Kerry Shale has made my “favored narrator” list. Listening to him perform Ruth Ozeki’s “The Book of Form and Emptiness” was pure joy. In fact, I finished this 3 days ago, and I miss Shale’s voice and his characterizations of Benny Oh and his mother, Annabelle. I miss sweet and kind Annabelle, who is one of the most thoughtful and empathetic mothers in literary history. And Benny, one can’t help but root for him in his journey through adolescence. Let’s not forget the amazing Ruth Ozeki, who is a Zen Buddhist priest, a filmmaker, and a fabulous author. I absolutely loved her previous work, “A Tale for the Time Being”, and I love this one, although this one is a bit more “out there” in her magical realist fiction.

In this story, Benny Oh is a 14-year-old boy who, after his father, a jazz clarinetist, tragically dies when a truck carrying live chickens runs him over in the alley. His father enjoyed his cannabis, passes out right before he gets home. Both Benny and Annabelle grieve in different ways. Benny develops sensitive hearing and hears the voices of the objects in his home. For example, he knows the socks don’t like being apart and want to be together. His books want to be organized on his shelf. Unfortunately, all the things get loud, and the only place of somewhat peace for Benny is the library where all the things in their use their library voices and it’s quiet.

Meanwhile, Annabelle struggles with depression. She gains weight and loses interest in her appearance. As with all teen boys, Benny is embarrassed by his mother. Plus, Annabelle begins an unfortunate hobby of hoarding. Annabelle loves her junk, in particular snow globes. Author Ozeki has some fun dreaming up snow globes.

Ozeki adds an interesting narrator: The Book. Yes The Book narrates the story, has its own chapters, and tries to teach Benny to tell his own story, to be a hero of his own story. Benny interacts with The Book. When The Book provides the back history to Annabelle and Kenji’s partnership, Benny is particular that his mother’s sex life is OFF THE TABLE for discussion in The Book’s narration. It’s funny. Benny and The Book have some disagreements. But The Book is trying to help Benny find his place in life. It’s an interesting concept: having The Book as a character and as a narrator.

So, we have a boy who says objects talk to him and a grieving hapless mother. It gets worse when their landlady goes into the hospital and the evil son tries to evict them. Furthermore, Annabelle has work issues which don’t help with her hoarding problem. Benny hears the objects at school as well. Scissors are made for cutting and want to cut….you can see where this is going. Benny gets sent to a psychiatrist who, of course, numbs him with drugs and institutionalizes him. Guess what happens to Benny when he must return to school.

Benny seeks refuge in the local library where he meets a cadre of beguiling characters. As with many libraries, Benny’s library hosts the street people, providing more fodder for Ozeki. This is a fun story. Ozeki had even more fun with a “Marie Kondo” like character who Annabelle writes to, confessing her struggles.

I can highly recommend the audio of this novel because I feel strongly that Kerry Shale (the voice narrator) made this story. I’m not sure how I’d feel if I just read it. There is so much going on. It’s a hefty 548 pages, almost 19 hours long. Listening to it, I could picture what was going on, especially with Shale’s performances of all the characters (the Bottleman was one of my favorites). The audio is a joy.

2 people found this helpful