on July 24, 2014
A unique departure for Murakami, whose fans are invested in his truly renowned works of fiction. (The Beatlemaniac in me led me to Norwegian Wood years ago) This book is a memoir-style piece that offers a look inside the writer's head, and offers a perspective on the question, "How do marathon runners do it?" I was excited to pick up this book, because while there are many books on training methods and advice, I was looking for something that was more about the mental process.
In "What I Talk about when I Talk About Running", Murakami shares his philosophy of running and life! Something while I was reading his book turned me on to the culture of running in Japan, and I have since read and reveled The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei. I think these two book are great readers for the runner who is gearing up for marathons or looking to maintain their stride. Murakami fans will especially appreciate the deeper insight into his true self.
Murakami, 58, authored 15+ novels, many highly acclaimed. He has received many literary awards and honorary doctorates. I have read and thoroughly enjoyed most of his best selling works (including my favorites: Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase). In reading this book, I had come to learn that Murakami had completed 25+ marathons, 1 ultra marathon (60+miles) and 5+ triathlons - this is a truly extraordinary accomplishment.
Murakami is humble, candid and straightforward exposing his mistakes, flaws and shortcomings - - one passage: "But this wretched story of feeling I had as I stood in front of the mirror at sixteen, listing all of my physical shortcomings, is still sort of touchstone for me even now. The sad spreadsheet of my life reveals how my debts outweigh my assets."
You get into his mind and his incredible determination to complete marathons and triathlons - feeling the sun baking his skin and the water filling his lungs - yet he keeps his feet and arms moving despite his mind and body telling him to stop.
You also learn about the impact that advancing middle age has on his performance times and that they are no longer improving despite a rigorous training regimen - "even if, seen from the outside, or from some higher vantage point, this sort of life looks pointless or futile, or even extremely efficient, it doesn't bother me. Maybe it's a pointless act like as I've said before, pouring water into an old pan that has a hole in the bottom, but at least the effort you put into it remains. Whether it's good for anything or not, cool or totally uncool, in the final analysis what's most important is what you can't see but can feel in your heart."
The book is described by Murakami as a collection of essays he wrote between 2005 and 2007 and then pieced together and edited for this book. I felt that the book often read like a loosely edited diary - - in contrast to his visually beautiful, smooth, multi-layered, dreamy fictional works. While I found flashes of the profile of his prior novels in a few passages, I found this book to be choppy and informal in comparison.
Early on in the book, Murakami discusses his strategy in running a Jazz bar in Tokyo - he wasn't out "to please everybody" - "it didn't matter if 9 out of 10" didn't like his bar but that "if one in ten was a repeat customer" his business would survive. My sense is that this book will narrowly appeal to the "one in ten repeaters" of devoted Murakami's fans (me being one of them) - - readers who wish to learn more about his life, his experiences, what makes him "tick" - and more specifically, the role that running, biking, swimming and training for marathons and triathlons had on his writing and his life.
Like the author, I am both a novelist and a runner -- but he's far better at both than I will ever be. Murakami has run more than 30 marathons -- me just one. He's written numerous novels -- me just three (and two of those still to be published). So it was with great anticipation that I began this book.
I found it clearly written and engaging but disappointingly slight -- the kind of book an author writes to make a few extra bucks when he's become well-known and successful enough to sell just about anything on the strength of his past record and reputation.
There are a few nice observations about life and running and the connection between them and some mild philosophizing on encroaching old age and how to approach it. But in general, I had the sense that the author was as much hiding his true self as revealing it.
His description of writing his first novel is fairly typical. He's watching a baseball game (he gives the exact date) and it's the top of the second inning and someone gets a hit and at that precise moment, Murakami decides it would be fun to write a novel. A few months later, it's written; a few months after that, it's won a prize. Just like that, easy as pie.
Running is much the same. Occasionally there's some pain but mostly it comes easy, mile after mile after mile. He gives his muscles their marching orders and usually they obey. A couple of times, there are relative failures (in running but not in writing) and the legs seize up. But in general, no challenge is too great that it cannot be overcome.
As the book wore on, my general envy passed. One can't be jealous of Superman. At the end, I found myself regarding Murakami, not as a fellow runner and writer, but more of a phenomenon whose brain and body are constructed of different materials from mine.
And I found myself, while admiring him, also somehow disbelieving him.
on August 4, 2008
I have not read any of Murakami's novels (this may change soon), but in his short stories he often employs subtle nostalgia for his characters' pasts. Often this nostalgia blurs the line with philosophy, and after reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, it became apparent why Murakami enjoys crafting his fiction this way: his style of writing mirrors his perspective on life. After traveling the world, training for and participating in marathons and triathlons, Murakami wants to share his runner's experiences and how they have molded him and his perspective on life. He presents us with a thought-provoking and entertaining narrative (some of it culled from journal entries and old magazines articles he wrote years ago, but most of it original stuff).
The book is 1/3 travelogue, 1/3 self-help, and 1/3 runners guide. We read about the running environments and typical weather patterns where Murakami has trained: New York, Boston, Japan, Greece. We read about the mental discipline and courage it takes to be a long-distance runner. But, most of all, subtly emerging on each page, we read about Murakami the philosopher. His favorite topic is the merciless and stubborn passage of time and its effects on the body and mind. He writes candidly about his thoughts on training as he grows older (Murakami was in his late 50s when he wrote much of the book). He writes about what he thinks about as he runs (ususally nothing); he writes about discipline. To paraphrase one of Murakami's favorite quotes (I forget the source): "...pain is inevitable; suffering is optional."
Murakami tells us that he was neither a natural novelist nor runner. He has had to work hard at both, but both are things which require a steady effort, skills with which Murakami prides himself. As we read along, we learn about Murakami's start as a novelist, his love for baseball, his strong character, and how he applied his strong character to defy his friends and relatives and open a restaurant, become a writer, and eventually, a marathon runner (even once running a 62-mile ultra-marathon). He had opened a restaurant before he became a writer, but one day, after the success of his first novel, he decided to close the restaurant and become a professional writer. It was at this time when he also decided to start running and quit smoking (in that order).
Although the chronology of the book might be a little out of order (the book is not structured chronologically), and this might throw a few more traditional readers, this wasn't a problem. The translation seemed genuine (although I can't read Japanese!), as the translator kept all of the little Murakami-isms one would expect: little phrases such as "...as I mentioned before," or little tangents into the second person. The style remains informal throughout.
Despite its ostensible subject matter (running), this is a book for everyone, because its real subject matter is not about running -- it's about how Murakami gathers meaning from life. Using a master's touch, he shows us how this meaning derives from his simple act of running each day. I, for one, became inspired.
on March 16, 2010
If Murakami had never written another novel after writing 'Norwegian Wood' he would have been a great writer.... Alas he did. Not that his other novels are bad as such. Some are even good. Others are mediocre. And his most recent novels seem to have been copies of other novels he wrote before. And as if he realized by himself that his recent novels are all much too similar to each other he has started to write semi autobiographical books, about the poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway or, now, about running.
These are not badly written, after all he is a good writer and a perceptive man. But much is missing. I had been looking forward, as an avid runner myself, to read the reflections of someone more perceptive than me, someone who might have another take on running than myself. Instead, I found a mixture of semi-baked philosophical thought and cliche observations. Yes, it sometimes rains when you run. And, yes, running a Marathon requires some self discipline. And, yes, stretching helps. And Mizuno shoes are good running shoes...
The book is a quick and nice read and I cannot claim that I disliked reading it. But afterwards there was nothing left. Popcorn for the mind.
I hate to say it, but this is probably the worst thing I've read by Murakami.
On paper--or rather, on the back of the paperback--it sounded like a sure thing; I'm a writer, and I've got a few marathons under my belt, and I was spellbound by the three other books I've read of his. So I thought I'd hit the trifecta when I pulled this off the shelf (at Border's--sorry, Amazon!) and saw that he'd written about writing and running.
And by and large, I felt a rush of excitement in the early chapters, a sensation not unlike the fresh lively feeling one gets at the start of a marathon, when the exhilaration far outweighs the effort that's been expended. It's fascinating, for instance, to read that he'd been the owner of a small jazz nightclub and hadn't had any particular ambitions to be a writer until he was in his 30s. I couldn't identify with that, but I could relate to his persistent attitude about writing. There's a romanticized notion of writers living the bad life, drinking and smoking and doing their best to churn out a great manuscript or two before their hard living catches up with them. (I've lived that life, but in my experience it doesn't necessarily make one a better writer, unless one's writing about what it feels like to drink and smoke, and that eventually makes for boring reading. This "But-Hemingway-did-it!" attitude often eventually becomes just an extra excuse to drink and smoke. Anyway, I digress.) It turns out that the lessons of physical fitness--persistence, mental toughness, goal-setting--can be far more useful and applicable to writing, a lesson Murakami and I have both apparently learned.
But those insights are, by and large, done by the midway point, and what remains is a long and boring slog. I've heard that a writer should never confuse how they feel about a story with how good the story actually is, and Murakami would have done well to heed this advice; his training efforts and race times were obviously near and dear and dear to his heart, but they make for rather unexciting reading. Also, his observations and analyses often come off as flat and uninspired; as an author, he's great at conjuring up memorably fantastic scenarios that still seem real, characters that feel full, and plots that work like a Swiss watch, but without the ability to make things up and take them in unexpected directions, he's reduced to stating banalities like "Nobody's going to win all the time. On the highway of life you can't always be in the fast lane."
To be fair, I'm possibly a little jealous. Murakami's enough of an established author that he could probably print out, say, every email he's sent in the last ten years, staple them together and call them a book, and sell a kajillion copies, whereas some of us are still toiling away in obscurity, unable to sell manuscripts over which we've slaved for years. But it seems even Murakami has the sense that this is a substandard work. After describing a disappointing performance at the Boston Marathon, he says, "This may be a sort of conclusion. An understated, rainy-day sneakers sort of conclusion. An anticlimax, if you will. Turn it into a screenplay, and the Hollywood producer would just glance at the last page and toss it back." Elsewhere, he mentions reworking the manuscript many times; while some amount of revision is obviously necessary, too much ends up leaving the writer with no sense of perspective on whether or not the work's any good. Like a jogger slogging towards the finish line, one ends up thinking about just getting the damn thing done with and resting for a while.
In lieu of this, I'd suggest getting Ann Lamott's "Bird by Bird," which doesn't have any fitness tips but is perhaps the best book I've ever read about writing. But if your desire to read is as automatic as Murakami's desire to run, you may end up picking this up anyway. And if you're anything like me you may end up turning the final page wearily, muttering the tired marathoner's frequent post-race lament: "Never again."
on March 7, 2011
My Sister-in-Law is a fan of Mr. Murakami's novels. For Christmas she decided to give me this book about running. Since I love running and love to read about my hobbies I gave it a shot. Truthfully, the book is more like reading a blog or diary of a runner. While it provided insight to the life of a writer and Mr. Murakami's growth as a writer, it did not provide much else. Unless you are a fan of his works I wouldn't expect much.
Just a beautifully written book. I don't do marathons (or triathlons) but I agree with and believe in so much of what this guy is talking about. He treats running as both an activity and as a metaphor-as a place to literally execute his commitment to improvement and hard work in the form of a little bit further or a little bit faster. Because if you can do it there, when no one is watching and it doesn't count, than you can sure do it for the rest of your life.
This is actually something Tim Ferriss has been talking about, which is that you need some sort of physically activity in your life so that it function as a steady drip of excellence: your company may be having financial troubles but you just beat your mile time or maxed our your deadlift. This book is kind of a diary of one man (a enormously successful novelist) who has done and is doing that. It's got good examples of how to talk to your body-rather, how to kick it around-and how to motivate yourself and appreciate solitude. Again, it's very short but very poetic and worth reading.
on December 28, 2009
As an avid runner, I was excited to start reading this memoir. However, the content did not live up to my expectations. For a title with running at its epicenter, this memoir spoke plenty about the credentials one must possess to be a successful writer. I disliked the constant bombardment of necessities and characteristics needed for writing and the juxtaposition of these qualities with running. I continued on reading only to realize that if I wanted a guide to writing I would rather pick up George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language", rather than a running based memoir.
What was most surprising about this memoir was the style of writing. At times I felt as if I was sneaking a peek into the diary of a high school student. For a talented and acclaimed author, I expected a higher level of sophistication, especially when describing his emotions. Not until the last 1/3 of the memoir did the writing attract me. I most enjoyed the pieces about the 26 mile run in Greece and the ultramarathon, where Murakami's imagery and personal determination really shined. Overall, there were moments when the writing whisked near something prolific, but most of the time the material undershot and missed the mark.
on October 26, 2013
I'm not a runner, far from it, but my elderly father is. Dad took up running when he was in his 50s and, until he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2004, he ran 19 marathons.
Anyway, I thought it'd be interesting to read this book by a Japanese novelist who is also a marathoner and a triathlete. I was hoping he could give some good insights into why people run.
This short memoir had some interesting moments about how marathoners/triathletes train and what they think about when they run. I love reading insights into how authors operate but felt that there was too much on how he writes and not enough on how he runs. For a running book, it could've spent more time talking about running.
It's a good book, certainly, but it could've been better. I liked the author's writing style, though, and at some point, may give one of his novels a try.