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“A Crucial Collaboration”: Ruth Ozeki on the reader-writer relationship

A Tale for the Time Being author Ruth Ozeki

If you’ve started reading this year’s Go Big Read book, A Tale for the Time Being, you’ve probably figured out that it’s not exactly an ordinary novel. The book’s two main characters, Ruth and Nao, speak to each other across distance both geographical and temporal; at the same time, they do their best to break out of the confines imposed on them as characters in a work of fiction. Ruth boasts more than a few similarities to the real-life Ruth Ozeki, and Nao is constantly aware that she is writing her own story, frequently appealing directly to the reader or calling into question her own motives and reliability as writer.

A Tale for the Time Being brings up a lot of questions about the relationship between the reader and the writer. In an essay for Poets & Writers, Ruth Ozeki recently explained her own understanding of this complicated relationship, and how it plays out in the separate-but-connected experiences of reading and writing. It’s an interesting essay, but I’m going to pull out my favorite part:

All meaning is created through relationship, which means all meaning is
relative. There is no one, single, definitive book. There is no one, single,
definitive author. And clearly there is no one, single, definitive reader,
either. There is only the exchange, the meaning that you and I, in any given
moment, make together, as your eyes scan these words and your mind makes sense
of them. And because we are always changing, the words you read today mean
something very different from those same words if read a month or a year from

If ever a book disproved the existence of “one single, definitive book,” “one single, definitive author” and “one single, definitive reader,” it’s A Tale for the Time Being. The entire book is built around the idea of exchange, the meaning created between two people—even, or perhaps especially, two people who will never meet. At its heart, A Tale for the Time Being is a book about the power of books.

If you haven’t started reading it yet—what are you waiting for?