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

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

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.

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20 thoughts on “‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ by Haruki Murakami

  1. Well, my first and only Murakami was 1Q84 and it didn’t inspire me much. I have titles from 1001 Books on my TBR so I suppose I’ll read them one day, but each time I look at them I feel discouraged and quickly whisk away from the M shelf to something else.

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    • Hehehe. This made me laugh, Lisa. I’ve successfully avoided reading him for my book group, which has selected at least three of his titles in recent years. Rightly or wrongly, I have a funny feeling his books will be whimsical, which is why I’ve not really bothered reading him, but I enjoyed this non-fiction read so may now have to take the plunge!

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  2. Haven’t read this one, but am otherwise a big Murakami fan.
    Check out things like “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”, great stuff.
    Particularly good writings about youth in general, and especially Japanese young people.
    Mixes warm/cold and realism/myth , if this makes any sense…

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    • My book group chose Wind-Up Bird Chronicle several years ago but I didn’t read it; I had too much going on at the time to try to fit in a 400+ chunkster. But thanks for the recommendation…

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  3. A close friend has worked his way through most of Murakami’s books and this is one of his favourites (along with Wind-Up Bird). Like you, I think he warmed to the honesty in Murakami’s writing.

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    • I wondered how fans felt about this book and whether it was a reflection of the style he employs in his fiction, so interesting to hear that your friend really likes this one.

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  4. This book appeals to me, which is strange because I’m not a runner. But, I think the runner/writer thing goes together pretty well. Like you, I’m a walker – I walk a lot- and walking helps me figures things out. All my best ideas come to me when I walk. Same thing as running or cycling or even lane swimming.
    I haven’t read anything by Murakami yet, but I hope to eventually.

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    • I agree. Walking helps me sort out things in my head. Cycling is a different experience: it makes me live completely in the moment; I think of nothing except turning the pedals and watching the traffic. That, in itself, is a brilliant way to clear the mind from distractions.

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  5. I really found this inspiring as I’m one of those who wants to like running but find it so hard. I think I have a problem with endurance. But it did make me give it a go. Out of all the Murakami novels, perhaps you might like Norwegian Wood (which is more realistic than whimsical).

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    • I used to be a keen runner in my teens and 20s, so I appreciate the effort involved, but the impact on my knees made me give it up. Earlier this year, however, I thought I’d give it a go again: I was super-fit from cycling and I figured running might make me even more fit, but then on my second run I pulled a calf muscle and that was the end of that!!

      Thanks for the tip about Norwegian Wood — that seems to the novel everyone recommends for a first Murakami. I have a copy here …. somewhere.

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  6. I’ve read a few of his novels and I loved this book – as a runner I, I found it inspiring and very down to earth and useful – I even adopted one of his mantras for my own running! Nice to see it being reviewed.

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    • Thanks, Liz. I can see why runners would find this book inspiring; he writes about the sport so eloquently and without pretension. I think it remarkable he runs one marathon a year and that his career has been pretty much injury free. He obviously has the right physique and mental/physical approach to training.

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  7. I’m a Murakami fan but haven’t read his last couple of books – and not all of those before either! I have read this one – it was one of my early blog reviews as I recollect. I’m not a runner either and can’t begin to imagine running a marathon, but I loved this book. I think a good writer can make anything interesting if s/he puts a mind to it. And of course, in this one he talks a bit about writing.

    But do read his fiction one day. It can be quite mesmerising. Start with shorter ones like Norwegian Wood or, After dark (I think that’s it). I also like his short stories.

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