What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: Running to write

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

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI have just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running for the fifth time. I love this book, and although I wouldn’t say it’s the greatest book ever written, it may be my favorite book ever written.

At the title suggests, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a series of essays and memoirs, mostly centering on running. However, it’s also the story of how Murakami went from running a jazz club in Tokyo to writing novels. Murakami also touches on his love of vinyl albums, his translating the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver into Japanese, and his love of Sam Adams beer. More substantially (for some readers) he shares his ideas about competition, aging, and relationships.

SFF fans may be most interested in the opening chapters, in which Murakami tells the story of how one day, while watching a baseball game, he thought, “I could write a novel.” Rather than dismissing this thought, he did write a novel (Hear the Wind Sing) and another (Pinball, 1973) while running a jazz club in Tokyo. Over time, however, he realized that he had the chance to become a novelist, so he sold his jazz club, moved into a suburb, and transformed his life so that he could write something he felt was more substantial (A Wild Sheep Chase). Murakami does not go into great detail about these works, but he does share what was going through his mind as he wrote them.

One of the things I found most interesting, however, is Murakami’s account of the changes he makes in order to become a novelist. He gives up smoking, goes to bed earlier, changes his diet, and starts running — all so that he can commit himself to writing. Murakami does not become a daily jogger, but instead goes on to run a marathon every year for over two decades.

However, as he writes these essays, running has changed for him. He can no longer improve his performance and he has begun to experience “runner’s blues.” Though he still runs every day, it does not offer him as much as it used to. While attempting to find the source of his runner’s blues, Murakami takes the reader through his life as a runner. He narrates his experience in a few races and how his training has changed over time. Some of the races are undeniably impressive: he explains how he ran the road from Marathon to Athens in the middle of summer, how he ran an ultramarathon, and he also shares his struggles learning to swim and cycle in triathlons. All the while, Murakami is training for new events, trying to solve his runner’s blues and to improve his time.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running may not be for everyone. I have recommended this book to many people, but not everyone loves it. Given its discussions of competition, fitness, and training, some readers take it as a sort of overly conversational self-help book. Other readers have told me this memoir on running should have more technical details. It should be noted that What I Talk About When I Talk About Running will be a false start for some readers, but, for others, it goes the distance.

Published in 2008. An intimate look at writing, running, and the incredible way they intersect, from the incomparable, bestselling author Haruki Murakami.While simply training for New York City Marathon would be enough for most people, Haruki Murakami’s decided to write about it as well. The result is a beautiful memoir about his intertwined obsessions with running and writing, full of vivid memories and insights, including the eureka moment when he decided to become a writer. By turns funny and sobering, playful and philosophical, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is rich and revelatory, both for fans of this masterful yet guardedly private writer and for the exploding population of athletes who find similar satisfaction in athletic pursuit.

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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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9 comments

  1. Ryan, this sounds like very unusual subject matter for a Murakami book. I absolutely hate running (because I get exhausted immediately), but I can go cycling for hours without trouble. It helps me focus my thoughts, and I’ve also listened to audiobooks during rides. I guess it makes sense for writers too, though it never occurred to me before. His fans in Japan, called Harukists, like to hang out at Jazz bars to compare notes. Someday I’ll read more of his stuff.

  2. Murakami is very big on running.

    I love that he wrote his first novel in English first, and it made him write differently. Having finally read it, I was a bit disappointed… I had to remind myself it was his first book, and it wasn’t really written for a Western audience (although I don’t know if he thinks in those terms when he writes.)

    I want to read this and I’d be very curious to read his non-fiction book about the sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway. Clearly several threads in 1Q84 (94?) were inspired by what he learned about those cults.

    • Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution is a champion for that book; I don’t recall whether he liked IQ84.

  3. I’d say that 1Q84 is definitely a divisive book – I’ve read reviews that absolutely castigate it as the most unreadable and self-indulgent drivel ever written, and others who think it’s genius.

    I need to read it someday, since I was an exchange student in Tokyo in 1994-5, and was on the Tozai subway the morning of the sarin attacks on Mar 20 1995, and somehow managed to avoid harm by sheer luck. This happened two months after the big Kobe earthquake, at which my mom said “I thought Japan was a safe country!” Well, seeing what is happening in the world today, I’d say no place is truly safe as long as there are deranged people and the various conditions that lead to terrorism.

  4. Stuart, I’m glad you survived the subway attack unscathed!

    I thought 1Q84 was self-indulgent, partly incomprehensible, and kinda brilliant.

  5. So Marion, what you’re saying is that the fans and haters of 1Q84 are BOTH right!

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