Running with one of the greatest contemporary Japanese writers. Read more at my blog …
So I gather that Mr. Murakami is a big deal in the world of novelists, yes? I am sort of a curmudgeon who doesn’t read a whole lot of new fiction, so forgive my ignorance. As a newish runner and total running addict, though, I’ve heard a lot about Murakami’s memoir, in which he discusses his training regimen, his annual marathon habit, and life in general. I came into it looking for some light reading and maybe some inspiration. I’d say that I came away one for two, which isn’t a bad record, all things considered.
What I Talk About… is a series of essays loosely following the author as he prepares for the 2005 NYC Marathon. It’s interspersed with more recent reflections as well, and plenty of background on how he got into running (and writing novels) in the first place. There’s quite a bit of talk about running, but more than anything, this book is simply about how Murakami looks at the world. What truly fascinated me was his narrative voice. If it’s the same as he uses in his novels, I’ll definitely check them out at some point. He’s an amazing pragmatist. I find it hard to believe that anyone could really be that matter-of-fact about life, other people, one’s own self, death, but that seems to be the case here. Murakami looks unflinchingly at his successes and failures, his shortcomings and strengths. He talks about places he’s been, races he’s run, people he’s met, all in the same even, honest tone. Interestingly enough, I think the area in which that tone does the most damage is with regard to the subject of running. If you’re looking for ideas or information on training in a more narrative setting, I think this book will disappoint you. While clearly a prolific runner, Murakami has definitely done things his own way, and I don’t think his style of training would suit everyone.
Basically, he just gets out there and runs. A lot. It’s both inspiring and frustrating to listen to his descriptions of his daily schedule: as a writer, he works hard and often, but he also has an extremely flexible lifestyle that enables him to run for an hour every day, six days a week. Makes me want to get out there and start writing books, I tell you. (Um, no. The running for an hour every day, yes. The writing books, no.) And while he runs, he reflects. I think that’s something a lot of runners will tell you they enjoy about running is the mental break it affords. In Murakami’s case, he doesn’t seem to indicate that he necessarily gets anything concrete out of the time in terms of, say, his writing, but it does seem to inform his worldview in terms of what he has learned from the discipline and strength needed to train and run a marathon every year for 20+ years.
I’d imagine plenty of people are put off by the fact that this is ostensibly a book about running. Ultimately, though, that’s not how I’d describe it. I think it’s a book about life and death. Murakami spends a lot of time talking about how running was when he was younger, and how it is now that he’s older. He focuses a great deal on the fact that he is aging and losing strength and speed, and a lot on how someday he will die. All of this comes through in his usual straightforward tone, but it seems to me that you don’t dwell on such subjects at such length unless it’s something you’re working to come to terms with. Which, of course, is probably the only truly unifying human experience. So really, What I Talk About… is actually a book about being a human being. It just happens to come through the lens of also being a runner.