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Opinion | What We Gain by Enchanting the Objects in Our Lives


ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”


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OK, while I was on paternity leave, I read Ruth Ozeki’s “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” and I loved. Ozeki is a novelist. She also wrote “A Tale for the Time Being,” which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. And she’s a Zen Buddhist priest.

And these vocations for her are deeply intertwined. Her fiction is unique for how it brings ancient ideas about attention and spirituality and ritual and reality to bear on very contemporary experiences, like spending too much time on the internet, shopping in big-box stores, trying to process the 24-hour news cycle, being bullied online. And that makes it all sound heavy, but that’s the thing about Ozeki’s writing — it isn’t heavy.

These are stories, not sermons, and they move me for that reason. Like life, the terrible exists next to the beautiful. And even tragedy is faintly ridiculous, most of all to those going through it.

“The Book of Form and Emptiness” is about a teenager named Benny who starts hearing objects speak to him right after his father’s death. And it’s about his mother Annabelle, who can’t let go of anything she owns and can’t seem to help her son or herself. And it’s about the people Benny gets to know, who also have unshared mental experiences. And I have a very different relationship to them than the one that society says we should have.

And then it’s about so much more than that: materialism and consumerism and information overload and the power of stories and the role of libraries. And if I tried to list every theme and idea in the book, we would be here all day. But voices is where our conversation begins, what it means to hear other voices and whether that’s really so rare.

We also talk about how Ozeki’s novels begin when a character starts speaking in her mind, the Zen phrase— and I love this phrase — not knowing is the most intimate. We talk about how meditation teaches you to hear the myriad voices in your own internal monologue as voices, how it alienates you in certain ways from the voices in your head. We discuss what it says that Marie Kondo’s almost animist philosophy of tidying became so popular across the globe.

We talk about whether objects want things and whether we should expand our definition of normal cognition and — in my personal favorite part of a wonderful conversation — the dilemmas posed by an empty box with the words empty box written on it. This is a conversation I want to note that is about mental experiences that are often categorized as illness and that can be brutally difficult no matter what we call them.

Like Ozeki’s work, I didn’t find this conversation depressing. I found it beautiful and uplifting. And it led me to relate, certainly, to the things in my life and the voices in my head a little bit differently for a while after we had it. But of course, know yourself going in. As always, my email is ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com if you want to send guest suggestions, feedback, recommendations. Here’s Ruth Ozeki.


Ruth Ozeki, welcome to the show.

ruth ozeki

Thank you so much, Ezra. It’s wonderful to be here.

ezra klein

I’ve heard you say that the first thing you do with your creative writing students is to teach them to meditate. So tell me how writing a novel and meditation connect for you.

ruth ozeki

I’m not sure whether it’s writing a novel necessarily or writing anything. Gosh, there’s so many ways that meditation supports writing. One thing, certainly, is that, as we know, meditation improves concentration. And that’s something that is a challenge for all of us these days, whether we’re trying to write or not. There’s just so many distractions, and the mind is very distractible.

Certainly, if you’re trying to write something long, like a novel, which — I mean, this last novel, “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” took me eight years to write, so that’s an awfully long stretch of concentration that I needed. So that’s one way.

Another thing, though, is that very often meditation is something that we think of as being done with the mind. And I actually experience it somewhat differently. I experience it as something that starts in the body and is really rooted in the body.

And I think that’s true for writing too. That certainly when I’m writing fictional characters, one of the most important things is that I get out of my head and into the felt experience, the physical somatic experience of my characters. And I need to find interesting ways to do that, ways that will communicate in an authentic way that will evoke physical feelings, emotional feelings, rather than simply being clichés.

The typical example is you have a character who’s anxious. And a clichéd way of describing that might be, the person’s hands are sweating, or his heart was pounding. And these are fine shorthand maybe for a first draft, but at some point, you want to go back and try to move past that into the felt experience of the character and find language for that that can evoke that in your reader somehow.

And so you revisit that scene, and you work it until you figure out a way to do that. And so this idea of sort of dropping into the body is something that I think I probably really learned to do that through meditation. So that’s another way that I think meditation supports writing.

And I’ll just toss out one more. When we sit to meditate, our minds are very distractible and they get caught on thoughts and they start to drift away. And so at that point, the instruction usually is to return to the body, return to the breath.

And so this practice of return is something, I think, that’s very useful for writers to cultivate, because that’s exactly what we do on the page. We’re writing something and very often a self-critical thought will come in and suddenly we’re distracted. And then the instruction there is to sort of relax, relax the body, relax the mind, and just return.

The more we can accept that indeed the practice is just simply returning, as long as you continue to return, you’re doing the work. It sort of takes some of the pressure off. And it also gives you the resilience to continue to practice. I wish that I had been taught some of this when I was college age because I think I would have started writing a lot sooner.

ezra klein

In addition to return, there’s another instruction you’ll hear often in meditation, which is notice. Notice, sometimes label. You sit in meditation a lot and you begin to notice that your thoughts are not quite as directed as you believed they were.

You hear this line in Buddhist circles sometimes: thoughts think themselves. It’s alienating from the voices in your own head. For me as somebody who’s meditated pretty consistently now for over a decade, I’ve found it a little unnerving to realize how little control I have over the voices in my head.

And so it struck me reading this book — because this is very much a book about the voices in our head, the voices we maybe hear that other people don’t hear outside of our head — that there’s a way in which meditation suggests the voices we hear on a spectrum. That even those of us who don’t always think of ourselves as hearing voices are hearing more that we don’t quite control than we think. And I’m curious if there’s a connection — between that sort of alienation from your mental monologue that meditation can bring and this book — for you.

ruth ozeki

Oh, that’s really interesting. I hadn’t actually made that connection with meditation, but I think that’s absolutely right. There’s a kind of metacognitive function that occurs with meditation that you’re able to sort of step away slightly from the thoughts that are arising in your mind, and you’re able to hold them and look at them, and then relax around them as well.

In other words, you don’t really see them as yourself. The thoughts are slightly apart. And that’s interesting to me to think about in relationship to fictional characters.

In my experience, characters and books themselves come to me as voices. These are internal voices, voices that I’m hearing with my mind, but they seem to come out of nowhere in the same way that dreams come out of seemingly nowhere. I mean, maybe they come from the unconscious. Who knows where they come from?

But in any case, there’s this slight separation between the characters who arise in my mind, and the fictional worlds that arise in my mind, and my own felt and perceived sense of self, of who I am, the story that I, Ruth, hold as me. And so that separation, I think, is what allows the fictional world to develop on its own. And very often, I also feel like I have very little control over it.

And in fact, I’m trying to have little control over it. I mean, ultimately, I want to control it enough to be able to get it down onto the page. But I’ve often found that allowing unexpected things to happen, allowing my characters to behave in the ways that they want to behave rather than in the ways that I want them to behave for whatever diabolical plot reasons I might have very often I find that my characters will foil me. And generally, they know best, and so I sort of let them go. And so that separation, I think, is important in fiction writing.

ezra klein

Emptiness is in the title of the book. It’s also a very core concept in Zen and all kinds of Buddhism. And it’s often applied to that story of the self you just mentioned, that the self is empty. But it’s not empty in the way I mean my glass might be empty of water. So how would you describe emptiness in the way you’re using it?

ruth ozeki

Emptiness is one of those Buddhist terms that is so hard to define and translate into English. Emptiness really refers to reality as it is, that everything in the world is empty of a fixed, permanent, abiding self. In other words, everything is impermanent. Everything changes.

And at the same time, everything is also completely interconnected and coexist with everything else and cannot exist without everything else. And so it’s just simply describing the nature of things to materialize, to constellate, to come into being, to come into form, and then to fall apart again.

And one metaphor that I tend to like is the metaphor of a wave.

And so if you imagine the ocean as this vast expanse of emptiness, just this vast still ocean. And then the planets shift, and the tides pull, and the moon waxes and wanes. And suddenly from this emptiness, a wave starts to form. And it starts to poke its little head up from the ocean, and it looks around and it’s sort of like, wow, look at me. I’m a wave. I’m pretty great. I’m really something.

And then, of course, the planet continues to turn and the tides continue to pull. And then the wave starts to recede and it’s like, oh, no, help. And it disappears back into the ocean again.

And so this is kind of the relationship I see between form and emptiness. The wave is this temporary form that pops up and thinks it’s really something, just like us. And then time works on us, and the form that we’re in now starts to recede again. And the wave becomes part of the ocean, and we become part of the planet.

And it’s this constant flux, this ebb and flow, which is completely about impermanence. And it’s also completely about interbeing, or in Buddhism, we call it dependent co-arising. That we’re entirely dependent on our context, and within that context, we arise and then we fall. So it’s this notion of interbeing, I think, is really at the heart of the word emptiness.

ezra klein

Having read a few books on this, it would be great if somebody would come up with something that is not “dependent co-arising” to describe this concept.

ruth ozeki

I know, right? I know.

ezra klein

I really find it hard to keep trudging through the dependent co-arising literature.

ruth ozeki

But that’s why I think that the word interdependence is OK. And I really actually like Thich Nhat Hanh’s word interbeing. I think that is pretty good.

ezra klein

I sometimes play with the idea — and recognizing that I know nothing in these areas — that a lot of what is being described here is simply unreliableness. And that sounds negative to people, but when I sit with it, a lot of what is being said is that your thoughts, your sense of self, what’s going on around you is just unreliable. And your tendency to really feel fixed about it, to believe you really know what’s going on, that’s giving it a solidity. I always like emptiness as thinking of it as an alternative to thinking of things as solid and their meaning as solid and their nature as solid.

ruth ozeki

Yeah, that’s lovely. I like that a lot. That just makes me think of teachings about not knowing. There’s a phrase in Zen Buddhism that comes from a koan, which is, not knowing is most intimate.

And that it’s when we don’t know something and when we can sit in that state of not knowing is when there’s a kind of an intimacy with the world around us. And this is something that Shunryu Suzuki, who is the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center — he talks about beginner’s mind. This is another iteration of beginner’s mind.

And what he says about beginner’s mind is that in the beginner’s mind, possibilities are endless, and in the expert’s mind, they’re few. And so this idea that in this state of not knowing, curiosity and engagement with the world arises, for lack of a better word. And that engagement, that curiosity is intimate and very, very alive.

And this really pertains, I think, to the process of any kind of creation, music, art, certainly literature, is the ability to sit in that state of not knowing and somehow find some way to rest there, somehow find some way to be comfortable there. Because it’s a very uncomfortable feeling as a novelist. When I start writing a novel, I know nothing about it. And what I really want is to know something. I want to know everything about it, about this fictional world.

And so there’s a kind of tension between the state of not knowing and then the state of knowing. And so somehow through meditation, I’m trying to cultivate the ability to sit in a relaxed state in that generative tension between knowing and not knowing until some kind of answers start to arise.

ezra klein

I love that. And “not knowing is most intimate” is going to be the name of my Zen relationship therapy practice.


It’s a great koan for a marriage right there.

ruth ozeki

Right, exactly. No, it’s so beautiful. Wow, that’s really lovely.

ezra klein

The reason I bring all this up, for people listening, is not just that I’m indulging my own private interest and desire to talk to you about meditation, but because this is a book where the main character, Benny, hears voices. He hears the voices of things outside himself. And much of the world wants to diagnose him with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder.

And one thing that I think the book complicates and that I want to complicate a little bit here at the beginning is an initial reaction, I think, is easy to have, is that voices are something sick people hear or other people hear. But I don’t get the sense that you think that’s true.

ruth ozeki

I don’t think that’s true. And there’s a lot of evidence to support this as well. I’ve had various kinds of voice hearing experiences myself.

You talked earlier about spectrum, and I think that that’s a word that can describe this. After my dad died, for example, for about a year after he died, I would hear his voice. And I would hear it literally with my ear as though he were in the room outside me.

So it wasn’t an experience of hearing it in my mind. And it was always, for some reason, behind me sort of slightly off to the right. And I’d be doing something like, I don’t know, folding the laundry or washing the dishes, and I’d hear him clear his throat and then say my name.

And I’d kind of whip around expecting to see him there, and then, of course, I wouldn’t see him. And then I’d remember, oh, right, he died, and again, would experience this kind of grief and this sense of loss, right? And so I’ve had that kind of experience, which is very different from the experience that I described earlier when I start to hear the voices of characters or the voices of a book talking.

And I remember I was doing an event at a library one day and talking about — I think I said something like novels come to me as voices. And one of the audience members, a man in his 50s, 60s, raised his hand and asked me, did I mean that literally? Did I mean that I literally heard the voices of my characters speaking to me?

And the reason that he asked that was because his son heard voices, and the voices his son heard were very harsh and very cruel and very disturbing and were causing all sorts of pain and suffering and havoc in their family life. And so I explained that, no, it’s different, that the voices that I hear from my characters, I’m hearing them in my mind, but that I had had this experience of hearing my dad’s voice with my ears as if it were outside me.

And then I also was thinking about how I have another rather enormous cast of internal voices that are very much like internalized versions of what I presume this boy was hearing. And this especially comes up around writing, voices that tell me that my writing sucks, nobody’s going to be interested in this, why am I wasting my time, why don’t you go out and get a real job. There’s all sorts of voices like that, kind of neurotic cast of voices, again, internal, that are constantly berating me. So I know what that feels like too.

And so that’s when it started to occur to me that, in fact, all of these voices are unshared experiences in the sense that I’m experiencing them, and nobody else on the outside can verify that these voices are speaking. They exist on the spectrum. And on one side of the spectrum are these voices that we think of as inspiration. They’re looked at as being positive things, as being good things. They’re celebrated in our culture.

And then in the middle range, there are these neurotic voices. And then on the other end of the spectrum, there are these voices that if you were to tell a psychiatrist that you were hearing these voices, you would probably receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia or some sort of psychosis. So in a way, there is this kind of range of voice hearing experience.

And I think all of these are voices that, in fact, we all, to some extent, experience. And I guess finally, the last thing I’ll say is that there are many, many people who talk about voice hearing, who have heard voices, who we do not pathologize. And I’m thinking in particular of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, both wrote about their voices, and they’re the fathers of modern psychology.

Mahatma Gandhi heard voices. Joan of Arc heard voices. In different cultures, voice hearers are celebrated as powerful religious shamanic figures. So so much of this is culturally determined, I think.

ezra klein

That reminds me of a book I read some years ago now, but it’s called “The Great Shift: Encountering God in the Biblical Era.” It’s by a guy named James Kugel. And one of his points in the book is that in this period, what is happening in the Bible is simply happening. That people hear voices, and those voices are understood frequently to be religious inspiration.

And he does something throughout the book that I found somewhat funny reading it, which is he focuses in on the reactions of the people around the prophets. So somebody comes up and wakes up out of a dream, or they just got visited by an angel, and he just notes how repeatedly everybody around them is like, oh, that’s really interesting. So the angel came to you last night. Oh, that’s great. God talked to you in a dream.

And his point is that there’s been a tremendous shift. He’s making a point of the shift towards the more Western individual self-contained post-enlightenment self.

ruth ozeki


ezra klein

Rationalistic. But it’s not clear — reading the book, reading some of the evidence on this — it’s not clear that the quantity of voices we’re hearing is so different than the meaning we do or don’t give them, and so what we’re willing to engage with or pathologize.

ruth ozeki

Well, I mean, and this goes back to what I was saying about the voices of fictional characters, when I hear them, I know what they are because my culture approves of those voices. And my culture has told me, oh, you’re having a creative thought. You should write that down because if you continue to be curious about it and spend time there and follow that thought, then you can write a novel and then et cetera, et cetera. Right?

But if I were taught at an early age that if I’m hearing a voice of my character Nao in “A Tale for the Time Being,” she suddenly introduces herself and she says, “Hi, my name is Nao, and I’m a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.”

So I heard this voice, and I panic because somebody is speaking to me inside my head. And so I do whatever I can to suppress that voice and to make it go away and to pretend that I didn’t hear it. So again, cultural emphasis and the context in which we hear these voices, I think, is incredibly important.

ezra klein

I do wonder if it’s becoming renormalized in at least certain contexts — particularly within secular culture, I think there’s still at least some context for it in more religious Western culture — but you have a lot in self-help culture around these ideas of labeling the inner critic as a voice, for instance, or you have internal family systems therapy where you’re beginning to separate out the voices you have. You have, as you know, just a tremendous amount of lionization of creative inspiration.

I mean, there’s just book after book after book and frankly podcast after podcast after podcast. It’s like, you, how do you get the great ideas blasted out from the ether that you do? I was like, well, I sleep and I just mainline creatine and I’m a vegan.


And so there is something happening there, right? There’s a little bit more interest, I think again, in intuition and insight. And these things begin to tip into this territory.

ruth ozeki

Yes, I think that’s right. And I think, to go back to what we were talking about earlier, so much of this I think really comes from some of these weird dichotomies that we have in the West. And I’m thinking now about body-mind split and how for the longest time, we were taught not to trust our gut reactions to things, to think that everything beneficial starts in the mind, whereas I think, of course, that’s not the case.

So much of deep knowledge really resides in the body, and it’s prerational. Recently, there’s more and more research to support this, and people are giving it more credence, and it’s more acceptable to speak like that. And I think that’s a good thing because, certainly, the body-mind dichotomy is something that’s really crippled us in the West, I think, for generations.

ezra klein

I don’t want in saying all this and in exploring this idea of the spectrum to deny, of course, there are people who hear voices in ways that are uncontrolled and tormenting for them. And that’s true in the book too. There are moments in the voices Benny hears that are terrifying. I mean, there are moments of this book that are frightening.

As a parent of a young child, those moments for me were very, very hard to imagine, right? Hard to imagine what it would be like to be the parent, as Annabelle is, of a child who is being told by scissors to stab himself or his teacher. And for this book, you researched the Hearing Voices Movement. Can you talk a bit about what you learned there?

ruth ozeki

I think the Hearing Voices Movement is a very, very powerful model. It’s a powerful movement and a powerful model for people who have the lived experience of voice hearing to teach the rest of us what their experience is like. It’s a grassroots peer-to-peer mental health support network.

There are several great organizations. One of them is Intervoice, International Hearing Voices Network, and another one based in the US is Hearing Voices USA. And these are peer support groups, people with lived experience who are reaching out and supporting each other.

And so it’s not the kind of pathologizing top-down medical establishment approach that traditionally has been predominant in this country and in the West. So I did quite a bit of research. I have friends who hear voices and who identify as voice hearers. I have friends who are working in this area as well as psychiatrists and psychologists.

And so one of the things that I really came away with was a sense of the enormous range that, of course, there are certain similarities of experience, but there’s also incredible diversity here. And I think that this psychic diversity, the diversity of our mental states, is something that we really don’t appreciate and we should. Our definition, our spectrum of normal is very, very narrow. And it seems to me that we should do everything we can to be more generous, to make that definition more generous and inclusive.


ezra klein

You’ve spoken before about spending some time in a psychiatric hospital in your teenage years. What do you remember about that time? And how did it inform the book?

Well, Benny in the book, of course, ends up in a pediatric psych ward. And he was a little bit younger, and his problems were different, but when I was about 17, I was a very, very depressed teenager. And like Nao in “A Tale for the Time Being,” I was struggling with a lot of suicidal ideation and just basic depression and anxiety.

Anyway, this landed me in a pediatric psych ward, and it was a locked ward. And actually, it wasn’t a pediatric psych ward because now that I think about it, there were adults there too. And it was the first time I’d ever been locked up, and so that was a really terrifying experience.

Another terrifying experience was the way that I lost all agency during that period while I was there. I had no control over what was happening to me. It had been taken away by the doctors who put me there

I don’t think I was there for more than a couple of weeks. Again, I don’t really remember. But I do remember leaving and thinking to myself, I will never, ever let this happen again. And to some extent, that was a good decision, but it also led to a kind of denial of the problem.

I was at boarding school at the time. And so the school had made the decision to send me to the ward. And it was a way of just kind of putting me somewhere where I wouldn’t be causing trouble, where I could be taken care of. And I think my decision to take my own psychotic distress and sort of put it outside me was another way. It was kind of banishing the problem.

And so it took me a long time. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it took me a long time to be able to come back to it and to be able to start to work with therapists and start to resolve this and understand it in ways that could be more helpful and meaningful for me in my life. To some extent, the meditation practice, the Buddhist practice has very much been a practice of learning about my mind and learning to make friends with my mind and to not find it the scary place that it was when I was a child.

One of the things that is distinctive about the story you tell of Benny is to the extent there’s a stereotype of hearing voices, I think they’re the voices of entities, people, spirits, demons, angels. And Benny hears objects. He hears scissors and books and glass and the sand that goes into the glass. What’s the difference for you, if there’s a difference, between hearing the voices of objects and hearing the voices of entities?

ruth ozeki

I mean, are objects entities? Can’t they be? Material seems to me to have a sense of aliveness, a sense of vibrancy. I’m not the first person who’s thought this.

Certainly, in Buddhist literature, there’s this question, do insentient beings speak the Dharma? In other words, do they have agency? Do they have vitality? Are they able to be our teachers?

In a Buddhist context, the answer is obviously yes. There’s quite a bit of literature about this. But also in modern philosophy, there’s also an area of philosophy that is also thinking along these lines.

And I’m thinking about Jane Bennett’s book “Vibrant Matter,” this idea that matter has agency, that things, the nonhuman forces have agency and effect on the planet. I certainly think that with climate change upon us, we really need to radically reconceive our relationship with matter and the material world. We need to take trees seriously, right?

I had long pitched battle with the city where I live. They cut down beautiful old cherry trees on our block so that they can repave the road. And it seems to me that was a perfect example of, we need to look at trees as being something other than road decoration, that non-sentient beings have agency, and we need to respect that.

ezra klein

I want to try to open a spectrum here in this part of the conversation too, just as we did for voices, because I can imagine listening to this and thinking, OK, I’m with you. I know I hear some weird stuff in my head sometimes and other people hear more of it. But when you say do objects have agency, I don’t know, that’s a little far.

You have a Marie Kondo like character in the book, though.

ruth ozeki

Yes, I do.

ezra klein

And I want to start there because I want to know how you read the Marie Kondo craze a couple of years ago.

ruth ozeki

OK, so when Marie Kondo started her laudable campaign of world domination, she was telling us to care for our objects, to exercise some sort of recognition and care, and recognize that we have a relationship with our objects, right? That they’re not just things that come into our life and that we throw away. That there’s a real connection there, or that there should be.

And so when she talks about how, for example, you have a pair of socks that have worn themselves out taking care of your feet. They’ve worn themselves out to the point where they are threadbare and have holes in them. You don’t just throw them away.

You take a moment, and it can just be a brief moment, to hold them and look at them and appreciate them. And then you throw them away. That sounds fanciful, I understand. And she also talks about how socks don’t like to be rolled up and turned inside out into a ball because it stretches them, right? And it makes them uncomfortable. They like to be folded.

OK, so she has very prescriptive ideas about what objects prefer. And of course, you could look at that as being sort of extreme anthropomorphism or just simply craziness. But there’s a long tradition of this in other cultures, certainly in Japan.

And so when I read Marie Kondo’s book for the first time, I thought, oh, she’s introducing a very Japanese sensibility to a Western audience. And it’s a very traditional sensibility, and it comes from the Shinto religion, which is an animistic religion, where things do have agency. They have spirits.

Trees have spirits in them. Scissors have spirits. Umbrellas, shoes, prayer beads have spirits. And they are taken care of as though they are sentient, OK?

And so for example, there’s this one story that I think is actually quite lovely. It’s a tradition in Japan and has been since the olden days for women who have a sewing needle or a pin that’s been broken. They’ve broken it. They don’t just throw it away.

Again, the sewing needle is certainly, when they were made by hand, when they were fashioned by hand, it was a very painstaking thing to make a needle. And so you would take very good care of it. It was a precious object.

And then if in its service to you over its lifetime it breaks, you don’t just throw it away. You save it, and then once a year, you take it to your local shrine. And they have a day specifically set aside for this.

And on the altar there, there’s a large block of tofu. And so you bring your broken pin or your broken needle to the shrine, and you put it in the block of tofu so that it can have a soft resting place. And then at the end of the day, there’s a ceremony performed, kind of a memorial ceremony, where you can express or feel your gratitude towards this thing. And then its karmic life has been closed, right, and it can move on to another existence, or whatever.

So I guess what’s nice about this is that it’s a formalized way of appreciating something that’s been important to you in your life. It’s also sort of a form of insurance because, as we know, pins and needles are sharp. They’re pointy and they can hurt you. They can poke you.

And so you don’t want to just throw them away because that might piss them off, and then they’ll take revenge. So this is a tradition that she’s coming from, a Shinto tradition, that sure, you can call it fanciful or silly or whatever, but wouldn’t it be better if we treated our objects with more respect? Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t build obsolescence into our things so that we had to throw them away and buy new things?

ezra klein

I love that story. And I want to touch on one of the other pieces of the Kondo method. We had a Kondo phase in my home too. Still occasionally tell ourselves that we will again.

The famous line from her method, which is you pick up the object I’m holding. I love these little Pilot pens. You pick up the object, and you ask if it sparks joy in you. Has always struck me as really interesting and then particularly from the question you ask, which is whether objects have agency.

Because the question wasn’t, do you like it? Right? That’s the same question from a certain perspective. Do I like this pen? Do I like this blanket? Do I like this shirt? The question was, did it spark joy in you? The agency was actually reversed.

ruth ozeki

Correct. Yes.

ezra klein

And it really resonated with people. And reading your book caused me to reflect more on that and the way in which early on, Benny doesn’t really hear the voices of objects. He feels the gestalt of them, I guess I would say, the vibe of them.

And I think we all do. I do podcast interviews while I’m pacing around my room, so I’ve got really long headphone cord, and I pace around my room. And it’s been a busy week. My son’s out of — his preschool’s closed down for Omicron. I’m tired. So things aren’t clean in my room the way I like them to be.

And while I was talking, I folded a blanket, I hung up a shirt. And did the blanket want to be folded or did I want it to be? There is some relationship you have with things. You look at them and there’s something they want from you or you want from them. It’s not that distant of an idea, I think, if you observe yourself closely.

ruth ozeki

I think that’s exactly right. And I love the way that you describe the Marie Kondo, does the object spark joy? And it’s true, we do recognize that, and that’s how we choose our favorite things. We choose it because of the way they make us feel. And so I think that’s really beautiful.

There’s something else that I was thinking about when I was writing the book. When my parents died, I’m an only child, so I inherited their house that was filled with their stuff. And they were both born in 1914, so they were Depression era children.

And they saved everything. They were very, very frugal. They weren’t hoarders. They weren’t messy. They were just very frugal. And so every piece of plastic wrap or aluminum foil had to be washed and hung to dry and then folded and then reused.

When I was cleaning out their house, these are the kinds of things that I found. And it was very hard to throw them away because somehow my parents, their care was still imbued in the objects. And my mother was Japanese. There were a lot of things that she had that I grew up with and they were still there in the house, some of which I understood, some of which I didn’t.

When they died, it was up to me again to get rid of all of these things. And I just remember being surrounded by objects, surrounded by things, some of whose stories I knew. Like there was a box of polished stones that my Japanese grandfather had collected and polished when he was in a prison camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And I played with them when I was a child. I knew their stories — up to a point anyway.

But there were so many other things that were there that I had to get rid of and whose stories I didn’t know. And I remember thinking, if only these objects could talk, if only they could talk to me and tell me their stories, and then that would help me know where they wanted to go next. Who can I give them to who would appreciate them?

And so this was very frustrating to me, and I really had this strong sense that everything has a story. Literally every thing has a story. Everything has a life. And I remember just really wishing that these particular things could speak.

ezra klein

Can you tell me about the empty box?


Yes, my mom’s empty box. Oh my gosh. Again, my mother. One of the things that I found was this little cardboard box, nothing special, and there was nothing in it. It was an empty box. And on the outside of the box, she had written in English, empty box, and then in Japanese, karabako, which means “empty box” in Japanese. So just to make sure that everyone knew that this was an empty box.

And so I found this thing. And I was thinking, what am I going to do with it? I mean, I can’t throw it away because it’s my mom’s and it was obviously important enough to her to label it carefully, right? But I can’t put anything into it because by putting something into it, I would turn it into exactly what it wasn’t. And so it was a kind of a conundrum. And so I just put it on my Buddhist altar because it seemed to me that was the perfect place for it.

I just love that story because I agree, you absolutely cannot put something in that box.

ruth ozeki


ezra klein

And what’s funny about it to me also is that if you had just found an empty box and somebody said to you, what is that? You would say, an empty box. But by virtue of the words empty box being written on it, which does not in any way change the nature of what you are looking at, but now it’s a purposefully empty box.

And as you were saying earlier, it had a story. It’s one of the few objects that could talk. And once it could talk, well, then you couldn’t betray its nature as an empty box. I would have done the exact same thing. I would just sit here for the rest of my life not knowing what to do with this box.

ruth ozeki


ezra klein

But it’s very little that happened there, right? It’s just like a little bit of writing on the side of it.

ruth ozeki

That’s right. And I think the other thing that’s kind of beautiful about it is that, again, it speaks to this idea of interdependence, right? Because it’s a relationship between my mother and that box. And it was that relationship that allowed the box to become what it was. [LAUGHS] And so that’s another sort of facet of it, that sort of nothing exists on its own.


ezra klein

So in the book, there’s Benny who hears the voices of objects, and there’s his mother Annabelle who — I don’t want to say she doesn’t hear them. They’re not in the way intelligibly the way Benny does, but she’s a hoarder. She loves her objects. She does not want to get rid of them. It causes all kinds of very, very dangerous problems for her in her life.

And you’re very sympathetic to her throughout the book. There’s a beautiful line where she said, this isn’t just stuff. It’s an archive. It’s my life. And I wanted to know how you would describe Annabelle’s relationship with objects.

ruth ozeki

I love Annabelle. And I know she’s a difficult woman. I get that. And she is a bit of a hoarder, maybe more than a bit of a hoarder.

But what I love about her is her creativity. It’s that she sees the potential in everything, and she’s just wildly optimistic about things. And one of the things that she loves to do is go to Michael’s, the arts and crafts superstore, and just walk up and down the aisles with an empty shopping cart, just looking at things and imagining what they could become, seeing all of their potential to become something else.

And there’s something so kind of hopeful about the way that she can intuit or perceive or feel the vibrancy, the aliveness of matter and its ability to transform. So in that sense, she’s not that unlike her son, who has a similar ability to perceive this vibrancy in the world around him.

ezra klein

Can you read that passage from Michael’s on page 54? It’s actually one of my favorites in the book.

ruth ozeki

Yes, I will. Certainly.

“She wasn’t going to buy anything. Just looking was inspiration enough. The door is opened like magic, and once inside, she inhaled deeply, taking in the sense of floral bouquets of lavender, cinnamon, and pine.

It never failed. The arts and crafts superstar was just another large retail chain, but it worked on her like a fast-acting drug. Her blood quickened, her heart began to race, and a dreamy lassitude came over her, as if her bones were melting. Michael’s didn’t just sell merchandise. It sold promise.”

ezra klein

What I loved so much about that paragraph for me is that it described almost word for word how I’ve always felt about bookstores. The only difference is they slow me down. They don’t quicken my pulse.

But growing up, I spent three or four nights a week in Barnes & Noble’s. I would just go there at night. And it made me think about this idea that the promise of objects is more powerful than the objects themselves. That one reason shopping is so powerful is that an object itself is always— once you have it, then you have the disappointments of having it. It can become clutter. But before, it’s all promise.

ruth ozeki

Absolutely. And it describes perfectly my relationship both with bookstores, but also with stationery stores. I am just absolutely hopeless in stationery stores. I mean, I walk around stroking the paper, feeling its tooth, picking up pens and trying them out. I mean, fountain pens are just religious objects to me.

And it is. It’s all about promise. Because once you actually own it and it belongs to you, then it becomes a responsibility, but when it’s just out there in the store, in the world, it could be anything. It can be anything at all.

ezra klein

This was one of the challenges I thought Annabelle — as a character, the way you wrote her — posed. Obviously, it’s cliché to say that one of the questions here is, are the characters crazy or are we? But you did make me think a bit about whether our disposable lax relationship to the things we once wanted so much, wanted so much we left the house, paid money, brought them home, put them somewhere, whether our relation to them is actually quite weird.

There are TV shows now about hoarders. It’s a whole cultural phenomenon. But on some level, it’s remarkable we’re not all hoarders. It’s remarkable we are actually able to move on from the things we buy so quickly and smoothly.

ruth ozeki

Yeah, I think that’s true. I mean, at its root, this is what capitalism does best, right? I mean, it first of all creates this enormous appetite for things, and then it tells us that whatever we have is not enough. So it’s no wonder — I mean, I think that is a form of madness. It seems to me there’s no question about that.

But how do we navigate that madness? I think the reason that there are so many clutter clearing shows and this whole genre of self-help has sprung up, because we have such a fraught relationship with objects, and we want objects because of some sense of insufficiency in ourselves. But then once the object becomes part of our self, in other words, once we own it, it’s no longer enough because that insufficiency is perpetual. So I think we are all mad in that sense.

ezra klein

You have a line that comes up repeatedly in the book. You write, “What makes a person want so much? What gives things the power to enchant? And is there any limit to the desire for more?” And I’m curious if you have an answer to that.

ruth ozeki

That’s a good question.

In my case, I do think that the older I get, the more I appreciate how, when I own an object, I have to take care of it, I have to be responsible to it. And so that in itself makes me want less and less. But that’s a function of age, I think, and also practicality because, having cleaned out my parent’s house, I’m determined not to inflict that on somebody else.

But it’s so hard in this society to control our wants and our desires. In fact, we’re not in control of our wants and desires. And that passage that you just read, I think what comes after that, the next paragraph in the book, is about Herbert Hoover, who was the secretary of commerce.

And he authored something called the Committee on Recent Economic Changes. They published a report in 1929 because they were afraid that people would stop wanting, that the market would be saturated. And so in this report, they say the survey has proved conclusively what has long been held theoretically to be true, that wants are almost insatiable. That one want satisfied makes way for another.

The conclusion is that economically, we have a boundless field before us. That there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants as fast as they are satisfied.

And it’s such a beautifully poetic piece of writing for a survey report, but it makes very clear that as long as the conditions are right, and capitalism certainly provides those conditions, that wants are boundless. And this is something, of course, that Buddhism has known too for millennia.

ezra klein

It’s funny because this part of the book is very on point in this moment politically. I know you worked on the book for eight years and it came out, even now, months ago. But it struck me reading it that when I read it, we were in year two plus of a pandemic, with in this country hundreds of thousands of people dead, globally millions.

And the big political topic right at the moment I was reading the book was whether or not there would be enough stuff on shelves for Christmas. Not whether or not you would be able to get food, or gasoline, or toilet paper, but just literally, could you get everything you wanted? And I don’t want to be the liberal who comes in and starts telling people not to want stuff. I think that’s condescending and also political death.

But I remember reading some pieces around the time, where people did try to make that argument, and I was struck by how much my reaction was, oh, don’t even say this.


You got to get it fixed. Don’t even try to talk people out of the wanting because that’s just the end of your entire political project. And yet it’s not obvious it’s making us happy. I mean, I really see it in my son who wants the next thing more than he wants the thing itself at the moment he is opening it. It’s like the feeling of want is the feeling. It’s not the feeling of possession.

ruth ozeki

Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. And I also, at the beginning of the pandemic, was immediately caught up in this idea of scarcity, as we all were, right? But to go back to the power of desire, of craving, this is again one of the central tenets in Buddhism, something that Buddhism has always recognized. That it’s the craving, that this desire, this want is what leads to suffering. And so so much of Buddhism is about how to work with that.

And I think as long as we’re alive, we’re going to want. I certainly will. So it’s less a matter of getting rid of it and more a matter of seeing it in the larger context, I think, and learning to sit with the discomfort. Because actually, wanting, desiring can be really painful, right? And even as we’ve talked about, obtaining can also be painful, right? So it’s an ever-changing, ever-shifting landscape of desire, and somehow we need to live in the middle of that and somehow survive.

ezra klein

So I rightly or wrongly believe toddlers to mostly be more honest versions of adults, so I don’t really think that different. I think that adults are better able to hide and rationalize why we’re feeling what we’re feeling, but oftentimes the feelings are first. And I’ve never seen more profound proof that craving is a root of all suffering than little kids at a playground where they’ll be absolutely happy. They’re there, they’re playing, there’s a slide, swings.

And then, oh my God, that one over there has a truck. And then they all fall apart. And we all do that. So often things are fine until we remember something we want that we can’t have, or want that we don’t have, or something that happened that we wish had happened differently. And I’m not taking away from that experience. It is tough. It is tough. But let me end, then, on this question before we do book recommendations and you convince people to want more books. I’m curious if your years as a Zen practitioner have changed your relationship to wanting in a fundamental way.

ruth ozeki


ezra klein

Well, that’s depressing.

ruth ozeki

I know, right? Nah, no. I mean, what you’re describing I identify with. Of course, that’s true. I completely identify with it.

I mean, I don’t identify with it in all spheres. I don’t feel that way about automobiles, for example. I have no particular craving for a newer flashier car. But other things, absolutely. There’s so much craving that arises all the time.

And I’m thinking about, for example, books that I want to write or reviews that I wish that I could have. And I can be very happy with the way this book has come out in the world and just kind of carrying on, and then it doesn’t make one of the year-end lists. And then suddenly, my entire world just comes crashing down around my head briefly, but it’s very destabilizing when you realize how much you wanted something.

And it could be a list that I didn’t even know existed, but not having my book on that best of the — whatever it is — list suddenly becomes a source of suffering, right? I hadn’t thought about it a minute before, but then now that I know about, it’s a problem. And thankfully, I guess what has changed through the years of practice is that now when that feeling arises, and it does arise, I also know that it won’t last, that this is temporary, and that by tomorrow I’ll have forgotten all about it.

So that’s a comfort even in the moment. Even as I’m having that painful pang, it’s comforting to know that, well, OK, this isn’t me. This feeling is not me, and by tomorrow it will be over. And something else will arise, but I’ll worry about that then.

ezra klein

So the feeling, it has an emptiness to it?

ruth ozeki

Yes, it has an emptiness to it. Exactly. It’s not a thing. It’s not a permanent form. It will sort of resolve into the world.

ezra klein

So then let me ask you, what are three books that you’ve read and loved and that I should want?

ruth ozeki

OK, ready? It’s so hard to do these things because there are so many wonderful books. And I really do think of books as being a kind of rhizomatic network, so it’s very hard to pluck three from the network.

ezra klein

Wait, can you say another word on that? What do you mean that you think of books as a rhizomatic network?

ruth ozeki

I think of books as a rhizomatic network because they are all in conversation with each other somehow. Books sort of speak to each other, which is why in “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” there are books within books, right? And so anyway, plucking one book from this network is always really challenging.

But having said that the three books that I’ve — I’m actually cheating a little bit because I’m choosing three writers whose books have influenced me. But the first is Norman Fisher’s book called “When You Greet Me I Bow: Notes and Reflections From a Life in Zen.” And Norman is a poet and a Zen teacher. He’s my Zen teacher, and he’s a prolific writer.

And his thinking about language and writing has had a really profound effect on the way that I also think about writing and about story and pretty much everything else. And so “When You Greet Me I Bow,” it’s a collection of his essays on language, on relationship, the philosophy of emptiness, culture, social engagement, all of that good stuff.

The second book and writer that I would choose would be Jorge Luis Borges.

And this was tough because there are two books of his — collections — that I really love. One is “Ficciones” and has some of my favorite stories in it. But in the end, I guess I would choose “The Aleph and Other Stories.” And that collection includes the eponymous story “The Aleph,” which figures really heavily in this last novel of mine. And there’s also an essay in it, which I love, called “Borges and I.” It’s a hilarious kind of meta commentary on the constructed persona of the author.

And then the third book is actually Jane Bennett’s “Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things.” Jane Bennett is a political theorist and philosopher at Johns Hopkins, and the book is an investigation into what she calls vital materialism. And so here, we’re talking about the agency of matter, of things, of nonhuman forces in the life of the planet. And I think it’s a really important book. And her work is particularly important because climate change is here.

ezra klein

And your latest book is “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” which I read and loved. And it really moved me, and people should pick up. Ruth Ozeki, this has been such a pleasure. Thank you.

ruth ozeki

Thank you so much, Ezra. [SMOOTH MUSIC]

ezra klein

That’s the show. If you enjoyed it, there are a few ways you can help us out or shape the next episode. You can rate the podcast on whatever player you’re listening on now, or send this episode to a friend, family member. If you didn’t like it, an enemy who you think deserves it. Or you can tell us who you think we should have on the show next by emailing me at ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com. We really do get suggestions for guests we have on from the email. And though we can’t respond to every message, we really do read every single one.


“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Jeff Geld, Rogé Karma and Annie Galvin. It is fact checked by Michelle Harris. Original music by Isaac Jones. Mixing by Jeff Geld. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Kristin Lin.


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