Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a collection of essays, compiled into a coherent and quite enjoyable narrative, by Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author best known for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. WITAWITAR is the first Murakami book I’ve read, and while it apparently marks a big departure from his usual style, I’m very eager to read more.

I enjoy running, in a casual exercise-makes-me-feel-good sort of way; I’ve never run a marathon, nor can I even go more than a twenty-minute stretch without stopping to walk. I vaguely dream about someday being the kind of person who flies around the world just to run (the Paris Marathon one year, the Athens race another), and imagine that gliding through some of the most beautiful cities in the world on foot while other people cheer you on must be a thrill unlike any other. I imagine, as Murakami attests, that running will actually help me dream and think and write, not to mention slowly dissolve the anxiety that clings to me persistently. And while more serious runners will of course get a lot more out of this book than I did, the beauty of Murakami’s prose is that he’s able to make even the lazier among us believe that if we just went running every day, all our problems would magically go away. We’d have more energy, more determination, more insight, more perspective, more joie de vivre. How many people can really make such bullshit seem convincing?  

The thing about Murakami is, he did kind of live his dreams, even if running—which he didn’t start doing regularly until he was 33, by the way, which means there’s hope for me yet—wasn’t wholly responsible. He was a bar owner who dreamed of being a novelist, as if we haven’t heard that story before, and sat up nights writing until he finished his first book, sold it, and raked in the acclaim. He’s now an undeniably successful author, and he claims that if running taught him anything about his craft, it’s the importance of discipline.  As anyone who’s good at anything will tell you, it’s not enough just to have a passion, and it’s not enough even to have a talent; I read somewhere that “real” writers (that is, those who hope to make their living that way) have to be willing to write, at minimum, for six hours per day. Otherwise don’t even bother. As the review in The New York Times points out, there couldn’t be a sport more conducive to good writing than running; it’s solitary, it can be torturous and it requires the kind of getting-up-at-seven-in-the-morning discipline that I sure as shit haven’t mastered yet. The process itself is energizing—there’s really nothing else you’d rather be doing—but it’s the working up to actually doing it that’s the real challenge. Like the inexplicable writer’s block, there are days when your muscles just won’t work, no matter how hard you try; Murakami believes in powering through, I (unsurprisingly) advocate a time-out until the next day :-). Ultimately, these essays are a testament to hard work, to pushing yourself against what seem like all the odds (like through the scorching heat along the eponymous Athens-to-Marathon route, or through long, cold nights coming up with stories about people who don’t exist), and to the American pioneer spirit in all of us. If I were to go all David Brooks-ian, I might argue that running the way Murakami runs is just a way to catch cheap vicarious thrills; to make yourself feel like you’ve “overcome the odds” even if you’re the one who set up the roadblocks in the first place; to insert some sort of pseudo-philosophical sense of triumph into what remains your comfortable, upper-middle-class and ultimately banal existence. But in truth, I’m not that cynical. Sure, maybe 90 percent of running involves discipline, but you also have to enjoy it, and you can tell Murakami really does. So maybe this is a book about pleasure after all.

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