Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Fiction Magical Realism

The Book of Form and Emptiness

by (author) Ruth Ozeki

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Sep 2021
Magical Realism, Coming of Age, Literary
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2021
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2022
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


A brilliantly inventive new novel about loss, growing up, and our relationship with things, by the Booker Prize-finalist author of A Tale for the Time Being

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.

About the author

RUTH OZEKI is an award-winning writer and filmmaker. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Shambhala Sun, and More, among other publications. In June 2010, she was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest and is affiliated with the Brooklyn Zen Center and the Everyday Zen Foundation. She lives in British Columbia

Ruth Ozeki's profile page


  • Long-listed, DUBLIN Literary Award
  • Short-listed, Women's Prize for Fiction
  • Short-listed, BC Book Prize's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
  • Winner, BC Book Prize's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize

Editorial Reviews

One of:
TIME’s “34 Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2021”
The New York Times’ list of “10 new books we recommend this week”
The Globe and Mail's "Fall 2021 books preview: Pump up your autumn with these weighty reads"
Amazon's Best Books of September 2021
CBC's "33 Canadian books coming out in September we can't wait to read"
CBC's "65 Canadian works of fiction to watch for in fall 2021"
CBC’s “34 great Canadian books to check out in fall 2021”
Toronto Star's "25 books for the readers on your holiday list"
Quill & Quire's “2021 Best of Fall guide”
Los Angeles Times's "30 Books We're Most Anticipating This Fall"
Yahoo's "25 New Fall Books That’ll Turn Just About Anyone Into a Bookworm"
Vulture’s “40 Books We Can’t Wait to Read This Fall”
LitHub's "22 Novels You Need to Read This Fall"
Barnes & Noble's "Biggest Books of the Fall"
USA Today's "5 Books To Not Miss"
The Guardian’s “50 biggest books of autumn 2021"
Reader’s Digest Canada’s “8 Best Books to Give As Gifts This Year
Stylist (UK)’s “Christmas gift guide for book lovers”
Literary Hub’s “23 Best (Old) Books We Read in 2022”
The Guardian’s “Best books to give as presents this Christmas”
“In an extraordinary year for fiction written by women, and from an incredibly strong shortlist, we were thrilled to choose Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, which stood out for its sparkling writing, warmth, intelligence, humour, and poignancy. A celebration of the power of books and reading, it tackles big issues of life and death, and is a complete joy to read. Ruth Ozeki is a truly original and masterful storyteller.”
—Mary Ann Sieghart, 2022 Chair of Judges for the Women’s Prize for Fiction

“Inventive, vivid, and propelled by a sense of wonder.”
“This compassionate novel of life, love and loss glows in the dark. Its strange, beautiful pages turn themselves. 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 and Utopia Avenue
“Heart-breaking and heart-healing—a book to not only keep us absorbed but also to help us think and love and live and listen. No one writes quite like Ruth Ozeki and The Book of Form and Emptiness is a triumph.”
Matt Haig, New York Times bestselling author of The Midnight Library

“This is both an extremely vivid picture of a small family enduring unimaginable loss, and a very powerful meditation on the way books can contain the chaos of the world and give it meaning and order. Annabelle and Benny Oh try to stay afloat in a sea of things, news, substances, technological soullessness, and psychiatric quagmires, and the way they learn to live and breathe and even swim through it all feels like the struggle we all face. The Book of Form and Emptiness builds on the themes of A Tale for the Time Being, and ratifies Ozeki as one of our era’s most compassionate and original minds.”
Dave Eggers, author of The Circle and The Parade

“Once again, Ozeki has created a masterpiece. Her generous heart, remarkable imagination, and brilliant mind light up every page.”
Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

"Ozeki has done it again. This time she crosses into new dimensions, breathing life into pages, enticing us into an intimate world. Richly imagined, gorgeously executed, The Book of Form and Emptiness is a remarkable book.”
David Eagleman, acclaimed neuroscientist and author of Livewired

“This novel asks the reader to hold this mother-son pair very close, in radical intimacy, questioning what happens when we unbind the stories and labels that form and empty us, that make us familiar but also strange to one another. I am a deep fan of Ozeki’s wild, unbridled brain and I adored this profound book which, itself, felt like a gloriously vibrant thing.”
—Kyo Maclear, author of Birds Art Life
“Ozeki's prose is warm and welcoming, but as you turn the pages you'll see that she carries her pen to dark places. And yet even in this darkness, she finds hope. Ozeki reminds me of a literary bowerbird, taking interesting things from across traditions and continents, all to make this intricate nest for us, her readers.”
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of Harmless Like You and Starling Days
“[A] Borgesian, Zen Buddhist parable of consumerism . . . Ozeki is an animator . . . [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. By juxtaposing a Benny trying to push the clamor of things out of his head and an Annabelle who binge eats them, as it were, 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

“Ozeki has shifted her readers’ way of perceiving what is 'normal' through a sort of slow, capillary action. Her books are not didactic, but they are useful; they’re not mission-driven, but they are richly moral. She writes urgently about the environment—you leave an Ozeki book knowing more about ocean contamination or factory farming—and her novels tend to include a painful parent-child rupture as well as a burbling stream of absurdist humor . . . Ozeki started writing The Book of Form and Emptiness eight years ago, but it is eerily suited to what readers are going through now, a quantum companion to A Tale for the Time Being: If time is part of healing, sorting through matter—through stuff—is part of mourning.”
New York Magazine
“Heartfelt . . . Ozeki, a practicing Buddhist priest, infuses her story with Zen philosophy, using themes of mindfulness and our connection to the living world to highlight pressing modern concerns like climate change, capitalism and the function of art. Inventive, vivid and propelled by a sense of wonder, The Book of Form and Emptiness will delight younger and older readers alike.”

"Ozeki explores, among other things, the importance of books, language and our relationship with objects, in 560 pages of prose that captures the imagination."
—Toronto Star

“Ruth Ozeki’s greatest talent may be her ability to ask the right questions. . . . The Book of Form and Emptiness, demonstrates that her inquisitive side is still on point. . . . The story is an intricately layered commentary on modern society and the significance it puts on material objects, a study on subjectivity and the nature of reality. When spending time in Ozeki’s world, the empirically provable and quantifiable become less important, and the truths of our inner lives grow louder, if only we can honor those voices.”
The Japan Times
“This novel’s meditative pacing perfectly suits its open-hearted contemplation.”
USA Today
“If what you need right now is to sink into a big, warm, literary bath, this is the book for you. It’s not that Ozeki’s latest novel isn’t challenging, it’s just that it manages to be so while also being pure pleasure, especially if you’re the kind of person who once had mostly books for friends . . . It’s a big book in more ways than one, complex and ambitious and wide-ranging, but honestly also just so charming I found it hard to walk away from, even when I was done.”
"[T]his novel is filled with hope, compassion and more than a little wonder, as devoted books fly off shelves to meet the people who need them most. Ozeki's books consistently nourish the soul, so one can imagine they are foremost among the ones taking flight."
Shelf Awareness, starred 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

“If someone were to recommend a novel featuring a character who hears wilted lettuce talking, that might give me pause. But when it’s penned by Ruth Ozeki, sign me up! The Book of Form and Emptiness. . . .[is a] serious but achingly compassionate story that mines the complexities of grief while also making a sly critique of consumerism. And Ozeki does this with her signature humanity and heart. If you listen carefully, you might hear this book telling you to read it, and you absolutely should.” Reviews

“A meditative tribute to books, libraries, and Zen wisdom.”
“With her characteristic charm, empathy, and perspicacity, Ozeki writes Benny’s story of learning to hear, and manage, the voices, and hear himself along the way.”
The Millions
“Ozeki’s illuminating postmodern latest [...] explores themes of mourning, madness, and the powers of the imagination . . . Ozeki playfully and successfully breaks the fourth wall [...] and she cultivates a striking blend of young adult fiction tropes with complex references to Walter Benjamin, Zen Buddhism, and Marxist philosophy. This is the rare work that will entertain teenagers, literary fiction readers, and academics alike.”
Publishers Weekly

“A vivid story of fraught adolescence, big ideas and humanity’s tenuous hold on a suffering planet . . . Ozeki, an imaginative writer with a subversive sense of humor, has an acute grasp of young people’s contemporary dilemmas. . . She doesn’t offer anything as complete as salvation but something more real: a profound understanding of the human condition and a gift for turning it into literature.”
The Los Angeles Times
“A book that is as wide in scope as it is deep in compassion, The Book of Form and Emptiness will have you viewing the world differently when you are finished.”
Reader’s Digest
“In giving the Book a point of view, Ozeki creates a loquacious, animated voice with ideas about other books, the past, the need for human stories and the mutual needs of humans and books. . . With this well-developed voice, Ozeki plays humorously with ideas about what a novel is — about the development of a story, how it gets told, who tells it, who hears it and how books affect people . . . Ozeki, who is a Zen Buddhist priest and filmmaker, takes up big ideas about this moment on our planet, but also offers close descriptions of memorable images that make the prose absorbing . . . These images reverberate long after the reading, speaking to Ozeki’s broad and benign vision of connected beings.”
Seattle Times

“An ambitious and ingenious novel that presents a stinging exploration of grief, a reflection on our relationship to objects, a potent testament to the importance of reading, writing, and books. . . . Ozeki’s playfulness and zaniness, her compassion and boundless curiosity, prevent the novel from ever feeling stiff or pretentious. Clever without being arch, metafictional without being arcane, dark without being nihilistic, “The Book of Form and Emptiness” is an exuberant delight.”
—Boston Globe

“[Ozeki] writes with bountiful insight, exuberant imagination, and levitating grace about psychic diversity, our complicated attitude toward our possessions, street protests, climate change, and such wonders as crows, the moon, and snow globes. Most inventively, Ozeki celebrates the profound relationship between reader and writer. This enthralling, poignant, funny, and mysterious saga, thrumming with grief and tenderness, beauty and compassion, offers much wisdom.”
Booklist (starred)

“A great premise, one that perfectly captures how it feels to be a child falling into a lifelong love of reading. It’s a book for book people, exploring how books can offer meaning and – in this case, literally – speak to us.”

The Book of Form and Emptiness is . . . compassionate and filled with ideas: an original, inventive coming-of-age tale about grief and loss, and mental health, and our modern, all-consuming, obsession with acquiring stuff.”
The Bookseller

Ozeki interconnects zen philosophy, the environmental crisis, a critique of our mass consumer lifestyle and a playful post-modern sensibility — one of the characters is a talking book — within a novel that, for all its wide-ranging intellectual restlessness, remains grounded in its characters’ emotional reality. . . . It’s hard to not admire a novel that uses a maximalist approach to narrative to argue for a more minimalist approach to life.”
—Daily Mail UK
Inventive and riveting, The Book of Form and Emptiness is wise, playful, humane and heartbreaking.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“[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
“Ozeki is a skilled storyteller and the journey she takes us on is deadpan hilarious, heart-touching and ultimately hopeful.”
―The Spectator (UK)
“[It’s hard] not to like Ozeki’s calm, dry, methodical good humour and wit, her love affairs with linguistics and jazz and the absurd, her cautious optimism, her gentle parodies . . . [she] is carefully celebrating difference, not patronizing dysfunction. Out of their fractured relations, she makes something so satisfying that it gave me the sense of being addressed not by an author but by a world, one that doesn’t quite exist yet, except in tenuous parallel to ours: a world built out of ideas that spill into the text like a continuous real-time event.”
The Guardian
“This book ponders the very nature of things . . . Do inanimate items possess a life force? How do we distinguish acute sensitivity from mental illness? These questions fuel a searching novel, one that combines a coming-of-age tale with an ode to the printed page. . . Ozeki's incisive on matters like consumerism and climate change. Meanwhile, her ruminations on life's greatest mysteries provide an elegant foundation for an intriguing story.”
“Hope is here, along with Ozeki’s wry observations and oblique insights, not to mention the other eccentric, interlinked souls who populate this fantastic, dense chunk of the cosmos that Ozeki has laid claim to. Just wait until you meet them.”
―St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“With all confidence, I can say that The Book of Form and Emptiness is very real. It’s a wonderful, heartwarming story of emotional growth filled with characters as real as anyone you would meet on the street. Except we are meeting them through the Book. And the Book, as we learn, knows all.”
Washington Independent Review of Books
“What an odd and tender and lovely novel this is . . . Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest in addition to being an accomplished author, and this rambling, shaggy narrative has a number of Zen ideas to play with . . . In Ozeki’s world, books are urgent and powerful regardless of genre.”

“[A] beautiful, heartbreaking, and hopeful novel.”
Reader’s Digest
“Sly humour and pensive sadness are coupled with powerful imagery and a healthy infusion of Zen Buddhist philosophy as Ozeki explores form and emptiness, the interdependence and impermanence of all things along with the nebulous boundaries between madness and creativity, love and relationships, and the meaning humans extract from, or impose upon, objects.”
—National Observer
“[A] masterpiece of originality, beauty, and poignancy.”
Daily Hive

“Ruth Ozeki is a master of magical realism.”
“What a remarkable talent Ruth Ozeki is. . . . [She] has created a world of wonder.”
Reader’s Digest

“[A] playful, philosophical novel that explores people’s relationship to possessions.”
The Washington Post

“A complete joy to read.”
USA Today
“Philosophically serious and formally playful. . . . But, as with all Ozeki’s novels, The Book of Form and Emptiness doesn’t shy away from all-too-real issues—global heating, consumerism, mental illness—or asking the big questions: what is real? Is there a limit to human desires for more? [T]his tale of a mother and son finding their voices and a way out of the mess of their lives is both deeply affecting and uplifting.”
—The Guardian

“[A]n extraordinary feat of immersion for the reader.”
—Harper’s Bazaar

“Ozeki's The Book of Form and Emptiness is a celebration of libraries, books, and Zen philosophy. The book deals with the themes of life, loss, and mental health, among others. The characters are quite real and unforgettable, which makes it a heart-touching read.”
—Times of India
“Ruth Ozeki’s wildly inventive novel is like nothing [you] have ever read before. The world [she] has created here is laced with magic. This is a real book lover’s book.”
—Literary Hub
“Whenever I read something that articulates a feeling or thought that I have had for so long but been unable to put into words, I turn down the page or underline. In this book, every page is turned down and every sentenced is underlined. It is just so erudite—it’s like philosophy. It’s literally about objects both man-made and natural, and the way we interact with them as we move through life, but it’s more than that. It’s about grief, loss, love, music, and literature. I feel like [Ozeki’s] words just dance through the pages—it’s just fizzing with wisdom. [The Book of Form and Emptiness has] given me so much life, and I hope it gives other people life too.”
Marie Claire (UK)

Other titles by

Related lists