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Arts & Life

Ruth Ozeki reveals the nature of reality, and a reader confesses to refusing to share


This interview is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.

Several years ago, my brother sent me a copy of Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being. Wes was my guiding light, especially for what-to-read. He spent his career as a bookseller, first at Waldenbooks, then at Barnes & Noble. After he died, it took me a long time to finish a book because finishing a book in a world without Wes meant I had no one to talk with about it.

I didn't read A Tale for the Time Being. I was in the middle of several projects when it arrived, and I simply didn't have time. One day when I was culling my bookshelf to create order out of chaos, I decided to donate the book to someone who might give it the love it deserved. I tossed the book, along with a few others, into a cloth bag and carried it to the trunk of my car.

That book is still in my car.

It's been there, silently greeting me, for months now, maybe more than a year or possibly two. At some point, the bag tipped over and the colorful book spilled out, separating itself from the others. It greeted me every time I opened the trunk to load groceries or to grab a camp chair. I started to believe the book was trying to tell me something. I silently decided not to get rid of it after all, but still wasn't able to bring it back into the house. The book was patient. It waited.

Then a press release arrived in my inbox. Ruth Ozeki. The Book of Form and Emptiness. The release talked about books with agency and longing. I was hooked. I'd love to interview the author, I replied. My tenacious producer, Chris Laughery, scheduled the interview.

I was about halfway through The Book of Form and Emptiness before I realized the two books were by the same masterful storyteller. One of the author's themes had been playing out in my life. A book was dancing around in my physical and emotional world, nudging me to read it. All I had to do was listen.

When I interviewed Ruth Ozeki, I told her the story. I told her about my brother, one of those magical booksellers who places dozens and dozens of copies of a beloved book into the hands of as many people as possible. I told her he was no longer here to shepherd The Book of Form and Emptiness into the hands of readers, but I had the watch now. I would do my best to ensure as many people read her book as possible. I would tell the world how much I loved it. She was gracious in the midst of a busy day of promotion. She placed her hands together in front of her chest and tilted her chin upward.

"Thank you, Wes," she whispered.

I will love her forever for that blessing of kindness.

There is one more chapter in this tale. We have a lovely Little Free Library outside our studio in Sioux Falls. After the interview with Ruth Ozeki aired, before I could change my mind, I stamped the book with our library stamp and marched outside to deposit it in the Little Free Library for another reader to take.

It's the right thing to do, I told myself. Wes would have wanted me to share. It's not really my book to keep. A few hours later, the book was still there, calling to me.

I waited.

Finally, the noise in my head was a bit too loud. The book wanted me to come get it. I'm certain of it. I left the studio. I returned. Then I caved. I dashed outside, looking furtively around. I confess. I snatched The Book of Form and Emptiness and dashed back inside the office.

The book was warm in my hands — warm from the sunshine that illuminates the little library. I hugged the book to my chest and held on tightly.

I am sorry, Dear Listener, if you traveled downtown to search our Little Free Library for Ruth Ozeki's latest. I am the one who misled you. I'll buy another copy, a brand new one, an eager one, to place in the box. But this one has the breath of my brother in it. And so it stays, for now, close to my heart.

(And yes, dear Book of Form and Emptiness. I shall rescue your sister from the trunk. She has been unbelievably patient. Books are like that. They understand grief.)