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What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

By Anhelo | Books | December 29, 2009 |

By Anhelo | Books | December 29, 2009 |

In this memoir, Haruki Murakami combines a series of excerpts or essays over the course of 2005-2006 regarding his life, his career as a novelist, and of course running. Through this short work, he reveals the moment that inspired him to start writing and what led him to begin long-distance running. Besides being a world renowned author, Murakami is a dedicated athlete having participated in over 25 marathons and a series of triathlons. He uses these experiences as a runner and, more specifically, his unwavering discipline to describe his personality revealing that the qualities that allow him to be a dedicated long-distance runner relate directly to his success in methodical writing.

Before I read this book, I read the NYTimes Review of the book that read,
“I’m guessing that the potential readership for “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” is 70 percent Murakami nuts, 10 percent running enthusiasts and an overlapping 20 percent who will be on the brink of orgasm before they’ve even sprinted to the cash register.”

That made my laugh instantly because I’m part of that overlapping 20 percent. For me that is a statement, a fact, but for you that will serve as a warning because I inevitably have strong bias in favor of this book.

So I guess what I’ll do is give you my impression of the book, which is what I’m here to do anyway, and then I’ll give you my honest recommendation.

What immediately drew my attention to this book was that Murakami was talking about his long distance running experience in Cambridge (among other places) which included morning runs along the Charles River. I’m a long distance runner, so that works for me, and I also ran in the Boston Marathon, so I related to the marathon talk — I related to his discourse on training, the difficulties he faced, and his genuine desire to run. But, what really excited me was that he had been running in my backyard this whole time during my college career, and I didn’t even know it. I thought to myself, “Imagine if I had been running along the Charles River in 2005, I might have been seeing him every morning.” But I wasn’t, not at that date anyway. Regardless, I understood the context of his experience, because I experienced these locations myself over the past four years. He even mentions a talk that he gave at MIT on October 6, 2005. I remember exactly what I was doing on that date because I had plans on attending said event, but I couldn’t go. In these ways I felt a direct connection to the book.

If I could meet Haruki Murakami I would thank him for sharing this book with us. I use the word sharing because I felt as if I were reading pages out of the man’s diary. I’m sure this was a very calculated portrayal of himself, but it didn’t feel that way; it felt like a very candid, honest depiction of himself. He writes as if he’s having a conversation with you; he uses a very forthright, casual language and you get a feel for what goes on through his mind.

This casual language made me realize that there is a big difference between the writing of Haruki Murakami the man and Haruki Murakami the author. I suppose I have always assumed that an author has one voice, a natural talent, and that voice comes out not only in his or her professional writing, but in all of the writing. I was wrong. This book is written in a completely different way than the novels. His style was no way nearly as refined and sophisticated as his novels. This realization helped me recognize that novel writing is his job, a painstaking task that would be like any other job that any other ordinary person has, it’s not just a flow of natural talent (although I do believe that he is still extremely talented).

The most important part of the book, to me, was when he discussed what he thinks about when he is running. People who aren’t distance runners just don’t understand why people can run for hours — it’s boring, how can you run for so long, what do you think about. I just enjoy it. My only motivation is the act of running itself and, of course, general physical fitness. I don’t think about anything when I run. I usually say that “I think about nothing and everything.” I’m not really successful at explaining this and since people typically don’t understand me I start to feel a little crazy in the process, so it made me smile when Murakami confirmed my sentiment:

“I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.”

Overall, I was happy with reading this memoir, but I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone because it is clear that it has a very specific audience. This definitely shouldn’t be your first Murakami book. You should read this if you like Haruki Murakami’s books already or are interested in learning about him. You might even be interested in reading this if you are a runner or are at least mildly interested in running, but if you are neither of these things, I can’t imagine you enjoying this.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Anhelo’s reviews, check out the blog, I Read.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.