Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 180 pages; 2009. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel.
Confession time. I’ve never read anything by Haruki Murakami despite owning quite a lot of his backlist. Furthermore, I’m not a runner, so delving into What I Talk About When I Talk About Running might seem like an unusual choice for me to make. But I received this as a “Secret Santa” gift at my book group earlier in the month, and casting about for something light and easy to read last week, this one filled the gap. I found it surprisingly entertaining.
A memoir about running and writing
The book is essentially a memoir about Murakami’s long affair with long-distance running. At the time he wrote the book in 2007, he’d competed in some 26 marathons, one for every year of his amateur running career, so I suspect the total may now be higher.
Interspersed with this thoughts and philosophy on running, Murakami also shares his thoughts on writing (he became a full-time novelist in 1982 after he sold the jazz bar he owned and managed) and the way the two inform each other.
Marathon running is not a sport for everyone, just as being a novelist isn’t a job for everyone. Nobody ever recommended or even desired that I be a novelist — in fact, some tried to stop me. I had the idea to be one, and that’s what I did. Likewise, a person doesn’t become a runner because someone recommends it. People basically become runners because they’re meant to.
He covers the ups and downs of the sport — the joys and challenges it has brought him, including his struggle to overcome lethargy and the “runner’s blues” — and the kinds of places he has visited to compete in events (he’s a regular competitor in the Boston and New York marathons). It soon becomes clear that he’s a dedicated and focussed runner, intent not on the competitive element but on achieving his own personal goals which revolve mainly around time and distance — and keeping in shape. He appears to be motivated purely by his own inner odometer.
And the qualities that he brings to his running — dedication, focus and endurance — is something that is also mirrored in his writing life:
If I am asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist [after talent], that’s easy too: focus — the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else. […]After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance.
The loneliness of the sport also seems to suit him. He says he likes his own company — a good trait if you’re a writer — and isn’t a particularly sociable or extroverted person, so spending a lot of time pounding the pavement by himself, with only the rhythm of his breathing for company, suits him.
Later in the book he covers his growing interest in triathlons and his struggle to come to terms with the challenges of the swimming and cycling legs of those events. I was particularly interested to read about his cycling experiences, seeing as I’m a keen cyclist, and I can’t say I concurred with his view that it was a boring sport — “It’s the same movements repeated over and over” — because at least when you’re on a bike you can take in the scenery and fresh air without killing your feet and knees!
A charming read
All in all, I found What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (the title is a riff on Raymond Carver’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) a charming and rather delightful read, told in a straightforward style, with no literary flourishes or allusions to pretension. It’s all very matter of fact and, at times, painfully honest.
It didn’t exactly make me want to strap my running shoes on, but it did make me think about how exercise — for me it’s long distance walking and cycling — can aid, inspire and inform the creative life. And it has also made me more curious to explore Murakami’s extraordinary backlist of novels…
I read this as part of #DiverseDecember.