WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING by Haruki Murakami

Book Quote:

“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But I don’t think that’s the reason people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life – and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd  (OCT 23, 2011)

In his running journal-cum-memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, titled in obvious homage to Raymond Carver, Haruki Murakami claims that “people basically become runners because they’re meant to” –I know exactly what he means. Runners are different; if only for the fact they think nothing of doubling up socks to run in 20-degree weather while incredulous spouses look on; they brave downpours for the bliss of having paths to themselves; they passionately debate the relative merits of Body Glide vs. Vaseline, bare feet vs. high-tech shoes, real food vs. GU gels. Runners know it’s possible, even enjoyable, to be alone for hours, pushing themselves “to acquire a void” and these quirks of temperament are often enough to form a bond with other distance runners.

Last winter, here in New York, I only cancelled one scheduled run due to the weather which meant I was out in Central Park in rain and hail and snow, passing the same brave souls every day. On a bitterly bleak run, a smile or a nod of acknowledgment was enough to warm those December mornings. On the flipside, summer arrived and I was then having difficulty acclimatizing myself to the heat, and on a particular arduous day, when day’s high was nearing 100F, an older gentleman and fellow runner, passed me with an encouraging shout: “You’re going to do more than finish; you’re going to win.” The kindness of this stranger brought a smile to my face, and although when I run my first marathon here in New York in November, I’ll be far behind the winners, I will be among a group of very special people taking over the streets: runners.

To those who can relate to the above: I highly recommend this book. To fans of Murakami, or those generally interested in writer’s biographies, I have to be more reserved.

Although Murakami describes himself as a mid-pack runner, somewhere between the “energetic ones . . .slicing through the air like they had robbers at their heels” and the “overweight” ones “[huffing] and [puffing], their eyes half-closed, their shoulders slumped like this was the last thing in the world they wanted to be doing,” he is, by most standards, an accomplished runner. After taking up running in 1982, at the age of 33, Murakami has run, on average, one marathon a year – bringing his total to 23 in 2005 when he wrote most of the book. He has also completed a 62-mile ultra-marathon (his time: 11 hours, 42 minutes), a wonderful account of which is included in the book, and six triathlons. Murakami has also been fortunate enough to run races that are on many runners’ bucket lists– Boston, New York, Honolulu, Athens – and an excerpt of an article he wrote chronicling his re-creation of the first marathon, from Athens to Marathon (aptly enough, Murakami’s first marathon), is as inspiring as it is harrowing – I got thirsty just reading it.

But this is first and foremost a runner’s journal. Chapters are structured as discrete journal entries, most dated between 2005 and 2006 – the ultramarathon entry is dated 1997; the excerpted Athens article is from 1983. Consequently, the style is casual, conversational, and for those used to Murakami’s subtly layered narratives, the looseness of the prose might be disappointing. However, perhaps the biggest problem with the book is the lack of focus on Murakami, the writer.

To be fair, Murakami readily admits, this is a book about what “running has meant to [him] as a person” rather than a writer’s memoir. But while, Murakami draws parallels between the “focus” and “endurance” required by both runners and writers, and says that “most of what [he knows] about writing [he’s] learned through running everyday,” I couldn’t help but feel that while he was able to write honestly about his failures as an athlete and the limitations of his aging body (Murakami is 62), he was less candid in describing his life as a writer. Such creative descriptions of his struggles as a runner (at one point he likens his mind to Danton and Robespierre and his body to the rebellious Revolutionary Tribunal) only whetted my appetite for similar descriptions of his struggles as a writer.

Lest you think I’m a sadist, let me clarify. Murakami tells of his experience interviewing the former Olympian, Toshihiko Seko. Murakami asked Seko if he ever experienced days when he just didn’t feel like running. Seko ,“in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, ‘Of course. All the time!’ ” What Murakami was trying to discover with his inane question was “whether, despite beings worlds apart in terms of strength, the amount we can exercise and motivation, when we lace up our running shoes early in the morning we feel exactly the same way” and concluded that “In the final analysis we’re all same [sic].” I wanted Murakami to ask a similarly inane question of himself about his writing, because I, as an aspiring novelist, would too like to know if in the final analysis, we’re all the same.

That is why writers read writers’ biographies. We look for personality quirks or life experiences we can identify with. We’re comforted by tales of hardship and rejection, hoping that if we persevere, our day, too will come. Murakami started running around the time he started writing, at the age of 32. As the owner of a jazz bar, he worked long hours. Without any previous literary ambitions, he remembers the exact moment he first had the idea to write a novel: around 1:30pm April 1, 1978. He was at Jingu Stadium watching a baseball game, when the thought struck him: “You know what? I could try writing a novel.” From that day on, he wrote at the kitchen table after he got home from the bar until he got sleepy. This first novel, published as Hear The Wind Sing won a literary contest and started Murakami on his career as a writer. Eventually, Murakami sold his bar, and took the plunge to writing full-time, devoting himself to writing more serious novels.

The trouble is: Murakami’s breezy accounting of his career path reads as glib after the detailed accounts of how salt caked his body in Athens, or of how his feet swelled so much he had to switch his shoes for a bigger size during the ultra-marathon. Writing is as a difficult as distance running, and for all his well-deserved literary success, Murakami has also experienced the literary equivalent of aching legs, slowing times, and embarrassing disqualifications. It’s unfortunate that he chose not share them.
While I suspect it will mostly appeal to runners, far be it for me to discourage people from picking up this book. While Murakami admits that he is not out to proselytize on the physical and psychological benefits of running, “still, some might read this book and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to give running a try,’ and then discover that they enjoy it. And of course that would be a beautiful thing.” A beautiful thing, indeed.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 189 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage; Reprint edition (August 11, 2009)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Haruki Murakami
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

 

Bibliography:

Non-Fiction:

Related:

Movies from books:


October 23, 2011 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Non-fiction

One Response

  1. dougbrun - October 24, 2011

    Devon ~ I really enjoyed your review. I supposed you’vre read Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner?

    Good luck on your first marathon. (My marathons are behind me, having burned through two hips, one of which is now factory installed.) I look forward to your novel someday.

    D

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.