Book Review: What I Talk About when I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Posted: April 22, 2015 in My Story, Reviews
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I dedicate this book to all the runners I’ve encountered on the road — those I’ve passed, and those who’ve passed me. Without all of you, I never would have kept on running.

I haven’t really done much in the way of book reviews since high school, with the exception of the odd comments on Goodreads. But I figured that if I was going to read a book about running, I should write about a book about running.

That book is:

What I Talk about when I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami

Generally, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. My tendency is more towards mystery (a la Agatha Christie) and action/thriller (by folks like Clive Cussler, Ian Hamilton, Steve Berry) – really high brow stuff! But when I learned that one of Japan’s best-known authors was also a runner, I immediately put a hold on the eBook at the Vancouver Public Library.

Haruki Murakami (age 66) is a Kyoto-born author, with a quirky writing style. Some of his better known works are: Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore. I’ve actually read a collection of his short stories (after the quake) in the original Japanese. Here are my thoughts on his book about running!

What the book is about

The subtitle of this book is A Memoir. Each chapter is somewhat of a short recollection – excerpts from the ‘present’ (during the time of writing) and reflections on the ‘past’. Murakami talks about his life before becoming a writer, when he owned a jazz bar. One day, while lying on the grass watching a baseball game, he was ‘inspired’ to write a novel – dropped everything, sold the bar, and committed to his career.

This dedication is reflected in his running habit. Once he became an author, he realized that his sedentary life would make him fat, so he started running. And since then he has run every day, averaging 6 miles each day (sometimes more, sometimes less, but hitting his weekly and monthly targets). He has run multiple marathons – probably even more since this book was published in 2007 – and at least one ultramarathon.

What I liked about the book

Murakami has a very matter of fact writing style. He just tells things as he sees them. His description of himself as a non-athlete resonated with me.

He talks about gym class and sports days, and how much he hated them. He says, “I wasn’t good at the kind of sports where things are decided in a flash.” As someone who flinches when balls are thrown anywhere near my head, this makes sense to me.

Murakami goes on to discuss how the competitive aspect of sports makes him uncomfortable, saying that “…beating somebody else just doesn’t do it for me.” As such, he really doesn’t enjoy team sports – and I wholeheartedly echo this feeling. This is one of the things about running that works for both the author, and for me – our motivation comes from focusing on a time we want to beat…or doing our best trying.

Running: “It suits me”

My favourite part of this book was Murakami’s description of his Athens to Marathon run. He decided to run the ‘reverse Marathon’ on his own, just for the sake of doing it. He is accompanied by a photo crew in a van, who are documenting his adventure. He remarks that the photographer is baffled that he actually plans to run the whole thing, since most people just pose for the photo ops, but don’t really complete the course. Murakami is equally baffled: “I can’t believe people would really do things like that.” The best moment, though, is near the end of the run – in his exhaustion, the author is angry at everything: the dust on the road, the photographer in his van, and sheep eating grass at the side of the road. Such great reflections of the pain and misery nearing the finish line!

Also, napping is good!

What I didn’t like about the book

Honestly, if I hadn’t already planned to write this book review, I might not have finished reading. It’s not long – only 175 pages – but it’s a bit of a slog. I suspect that the stilted writing style is somewhat reflective of the translation. It verges on the awkward and unnatural, literal translation. But Murakami’s written word is a bit peculiar, so maybe the English version is not that far off.

And while Murakami is very dedicated to running – it’s an essential part of his everyday world, and he feels regretful when he’s not able to run – there’s a lack of enthusiasm about running. Clearly, it holds value in his life. There are a number of warm, reflective moments about people he’s encountered on his journey, to be sure. But I don’t really feel like he’s having a lot of fun along the way. Maybe that’s just the kind of guy he is – fairly solitary and introspective. Who am I to judge?

Finally, he makes things seem so easy, that things just ‘happen’. He suddenly decides to write a novel, and then he’s a writer. He determines to start running, and then he’s finishing a marathon. While there’s clearly hard work and pain involved, it happens with an almost fatalistic sense of ‘that’s how it goes’. I find that a bit difficult to identify with.

Conclusion

If you’re interested in getting a different perspective on running, this is not a bad book to read. It gave me some food for thought. If you’ve read Murakami’s works, you might find it interesting to learn more about the man himself.

The story about running Athens to Marathon is the best part – just read this chapter, and you’ll have all you need.

Before I started writing, I Googled book reviews. There are many. My favourite is by Lianne Habinek, in Open Letters Monthly – so if you want to read a solid, professional review, click here.

Did you find this review helpful? Would you like to read more book reviews? What’s your favourite book about running?

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Comments
  1. lcourtenay says:

    Hi Bradley,

    I really enjoyed your book review! My favorite book about running is “Run”, by Ann Patchett. It is fiction, my favorite kind of reading too. You may have read her “Bel Canto” which was fabulous (and if you have not read it tell me and I will lend it to you). I can honestly say that while I was immersed in “Run”, I had wings on my feet.

    Laurel

  2. egercke says:

    I can understand how it was a bit of a slog. It has been a while since I read it, but I remember feeling like I didn’t have enough details. However I also remember that I sped through it, which to me almost always means that I’m enjoying it, even if not in an easily explicable way. Interesting to hear from someone that speaks Japanese about the writing style/translation. I wondered about that, but I kind of liked it for that reason. It was very distinct. A lot of other authors’ styles blend together for me, but when I think of Murakami I can recall immediately what his “style” is. Even if it’s not my favorite style, for me there is something to be said for being distinct without trying too hard. You should do more book reviews!

    • bjcjapan says:

      Maybe I was being to harsh in my review. But certainly, Murakami’s style is very distinct and there’s certainly something intriguing about it. Perhaps I just had expectations that were too high for this book. Maybe I was a bit jealous because everything seemed so ‘easy’ for him as a runner! Nevertheless, I’m glad I read it and glad it got some discussion going!