“Most of what I know about writing fiction I learned by running every day.”

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running is a nice, slim mediation on the discipline it takes to be a long-distance runner and, also, a novelist. It’s written very plainly (see: the title’s allusion to Carver), which was fine, if a bit boring. Parts of it read like something from The Last Lecture, but I suppose it’s difficult to write passionately about any sport, even long-distance running, without using some banal platitudes (“Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life – and for me, for writing as well” (83)).

The most interesting parts of the book included Murakami’s re-telling of the “aha” moment he had (“You know what? I could try writing a novel” (27)), curiously, at a baseball game. Another observation that resonated with me was when he talked about the comfort of seeing the Charles River, upon returning to Cambridge from Japan. He said the comfort he felt at seeing the large body of water may have had something to do with his upbringing in a sea town. I understood the magnetism Murakami was referring to. It made me think about how often, year-round, I drive to the beach, and how, in Boston, I’ll walk down Charles St., to a bench beside the river, for no apparent reason other than to remind myself of its waters. “Seeing a lot of water like that every day is probably an important thing for human beings,” Murakami writes, “… in the midst of this flow, I’m aware of myself as one tiny piece in the giant mosaic of nature” (90-91).

In a paragraph that seems slightly out-of-place from the rest of the book, Murakami talks about how he doesn’t think anyone would much like his personality. Including this observation makes sense because the book advertises itself as a memoir, but it isn’t, as a whole, incredibly or intimately personal in the way people often think memoirs are. It was more like a travelogue, or a history of Murakami’s experience as a runner than a comprehensive portrait of the author’s life or personality.

It had nice observations about running and writing, and the similarities they share, but the book didn’t blow me away (or encourage me to train for long-distance running, which, admittedly, Murakami says was not his book’s aim). It did, however, give me some nice insight into the man behind Kafka at the Shore, Norwegian Wood, and, South of the Border, West of the Sun, all of which are books I remember enjoying reading, some time ago.

Related Link:

  • Kevin Hartnett has a really nice piece at The Millions about Murakami’s book. He turns my criticism of the book’s “ordinariness” on its head, persuasively.

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