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Book Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami (4/5)

22 Oct

I’d never read anything by Murakami and when I looked into his titles, this one jumped out at me. I picked up running really casually two years ago and if it weren’t for terrible tendonitis, I’d be running until it frosted. I’ve participated in triathlons for the past two years and love the competition. So I wanted to hear from a famous running author and I got to cross Murakami off my list. Two birds, one stone.

Talk About RunningWhat I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel)

Summary from Goodreads:

In 1982, having sold his jazz bar to devote himself to writing, Murakami began running to keep fit. A year later, he’d completed a solo course from Athens to Marathon, and now, after dozens of such races, not to mention triathlons and a dozen critically acclaimed books, he reflects upon the influence the sport has had on his life and even more importantly, on his writing.

Equal parts training log, travelogue, and reminiscence, this revealing memoir covers his four-month preparation for the 2005 New York City Marathon and takes us to places ranging from Tokyo’s Jingu Gaien gardens, where he once shared the course with an Olympian, to the Charles River in Boston among young women who outpace him. Through this marvelous lens of sport emerges a panorama of memories and insights: the eureka moment when he decided to become a writer, his greatest triumphs and disappointments, his passion for vintage LPs, and the experience, after fifty, of seeing his race times improve and then fall back.

This will be a much shorter review than I normally write. My structure doesn’t work well with a memoir like this. Murakami was essentially the only character, his wife mentioned very infrequently, and the plot being more of a stream of consciousness. That’s not to say I didn’t like the book, just that the style was very different from what I normally read.

There were a lot of things I related to in this book. Dedication to a sport that is repetitive and can be almost mindless baffles some people. But there’s great concentration and discipline involved in it that can be very peaceful. Competing in distance events is the least competitive competition I’ve ever been a part of. I’m racing myself, no one else. Maybe if I was elite it would be different, but at my level, it’s about finishing in the time I want to. If I don’t, it’s not because someone else trained harder but because I messed up my race. I liked the parallels Murakami was able to draw between this process and writing. The discipline and time put in alone are the same. I put a lot of time into this blog that I could spend with friends and the time I spend editing stories and books could be spent with my husband. But the discipline and pursuit of a goal are so satisfying that they are the few things that can make me happy and I thrive on that.

Haruki Murakami Image via the New York Times

Haruki Murakami
Image via the New York Times

When Murakami talked about triathlons at the end, I related to every word. While Murakami struggled with the swim, I struggle with the run. We excel in the other’s weakness. But being a multi-sport competitor is a unique experience. If you can walk, ride a bike, and swim a half mile without drowning, I encourage you to try a triathlon at some point in your life. It’s a very rewarding experience. Triathlons, when done as a sport, can be frustrating and exhausting. Having to train in three sports is a huge amount of time but crossing that finish line and completing one is the best feeling in the world. My struggles are different from Murakami’s, but I knew all the feelings he was talking about.

Murakami came off as very pompous in this book. Not about his running, but with how he spoke about himself. I find it strange that he translates books between English and Japanese (he mentions translating The Great Gatsby), but did not translate his own book. That was the first thing that struck me. The second was how he talked about his innate ability to write a book and how it wasn’t something he had to develop. That is so rare of writers that I don’t believe it. Those who wrote their best book first are known and remembered for it because they are exceptions and I don’t count him among this number. I think he had to learn to write and grow his skill, just as he did with running and just as I do with my writing. (Please go and read my earliest posts and tell me they’re just as good as these. I won’t believe you.)

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Ray Porter. I liked his narration. It was easy to hear him as Murakami in the first-person voice. He expressed the anguish Murakami felt and joys of running accomplishment. It read very much like a writer reading his own memoir.

Not meeting goals you set for yourself is anguishing. When I wasn’t able to run in a 5K a few months ago because of knee pain, I cried. It wasn’t out of pain, but disappointment in myself. I related to Murakami’s disappointment in his slowing times and I understand the frustration of bodily failure. I read his message as dealing with what you can control. He couldn’t control the time it took for him to run a marathon (to an extent), but he could control finishing it and what he was pleased with in the experience. It’s dangerous to have high expectations of yourself sometimes and you have to set goals that stretch you but are achievable and be weary of those beyond  your grasp.

Writer’s Takeaway: I bet it surprised Murakami’s fans that his memoir was less about writing and growing up and focused on a small part of his life that detailed preparing for a marathon. Most people wouldn’t define it as a writer’s memoir and in fact, I see many books about running in Goodreads ‘similar reads’ recommendations. Though, writers are told to ‘write what you know.’ Murakami knows distance running. Personally, I know a lot about turtles. I shouldn’t be afraid to write about them. I shouldn’t be afraid to write about knitting and triathlons and living in Detroit. We really do have to write what we know because if it’s well written, the passion will show.

A really enjoyable book that I connected with. Athletes will connect as well. Four out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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