WordsDay: Comfortable Jog—Review of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Running and writing may be polar opposite activities.

Writing requires long sedentary hours of deep thought; running, by its very nature, typifies motion, yet most runners don’t spend their time thinking about much of anything in particular as they run.

Both activities require solitude, although a runner may race with hundreds of other entrants and a writer requires an audience.

So perhaps running and writing seem like odd bedfellows for a book, but then again, Haruki Murakami has made his reputation by stretching boundaries and asking readers to look at the world in different ways.

His latest book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, takes a different approach than his usual fiction. Running is a memoir about the two things in Murakami’s life that best define him. Murakami tries to get inside his own head to explain the appeal, and the importance, of running and how that impacts his work as a writer. “For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor,” Murakami explains.

By sharing his own specific experience, Murakami tries to tap into the universal experience of runners everywhere. “Even if the skill level varies, there are things that only runners understand and share. I truly believe that,” Murakami writes.

Whether that’s true or not for each reader, though, remains to be seen. People who aren’t especially interested in running may not glean any new mysteries into what makes people strap on tennis shoes and start running in the sticky summer heat for mile after mile. Runners may not glean any new insights into their own identities or motivations. Murakami writes things like: “If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I’d never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep on running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.” That’s probably not news to even the most casual runner, even if it’s written with pith and polish.

By that standard, Running is somewhat pedestrian. As a memoir, it lacks the wildly imaginative and sometimes surreal turns typically tucked into Murakami’s books.

But Murakami still sprinkles his prose with great little pieces of description: “As I run, the trade winds blowing in from the direction of the lighthouse rustle the leaves of the eucalyptus over my head.”

He also sprinkles his prose with great little truisms of life: “If you live in Boston, Samuel Adams draft beer (Summer Ale) and Dunkin’ Donuts are essentials of life.”

Running succeeds best when Murakami uses his running as a way to talk about larger issues he’s contemplating. In particular, the book is very much a chronicle of a fiftysomething male coming to grips with getting older. He can literally measure his aging in his race times and in his body’s ability—or inability—to perform to his expectations. Frequently, he meets events with the “that’s life” fatalism that marks much of his fiction, but every so often, Murakami struggles with that fatalism as if it’s covering him like a sheet of plastic wrap.

“Most ordinary runners are motivated by an individual goal, more than anything: namely, a time they want to beat,” Murakami writes. “Even if he doesn’t break the time he’d hoped for, as long as he has the sense of satisfaction at having done his very best—and, possibly, having made some significant discovery about himself in the process—then that in itself is an accomplishment….”

He then likens that to writing: “Maybe numbers of copies sold, awards won, and critics’ praise serve as outward standards for accomplishment in literature, but none of them really matter. What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away,” he says.

And in that way, Murakami weaves his writerly life throughout his experiences as a runner. Rather than serve as polar opposites, they complement each other. His writing finds a runner’s comfortable rhythm.

Readers will find it a comfortable jog.