Books on Japan
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
By Haruki Murakami
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
“Someday if I have a gravestone and I’m able to pick out what’s carved on it, I’d like it to say this:
Haruki Murakami 1949 to 20…
Writer (and Runner)
At least he never walked
At this point, that’s what I’d like it to say.”
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Is this book really just about running?
Most of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (maybe 80%) is about running and what running means to Haruki Murakami.
Murakami has been an avid runner for over 25 years. He runs around 30+ miles a week and runs in one marathon a year (New York City Marathon, the Boston Marathon, etc.) He’s also participated in triathlons. The interesting part is how he describes the connection between running and writing.
If you’re into running, you’ll probably like the book a lot. I respect runners and I envy people who have a runner’s body. But I don’t personally like to run. I was bored whenever Murakami droned on and on about running without bringing in other subjects like his writing or aging.
However, the 20% that isn’t about running is brilliant. And even when he’s talking about running, he’s revealing a lot about himself as a writer and as a person. That’s what made this book so interesting for me.
What did I get out of this book?
I like reading memoirs by successful people because I can learn something from their habits and character. Even from a book about running, I got a sense of why Murakami has become such a successful writer. I won’t tell you everything he says, but I’d like to share with you one that really struck me as the most valuable.
Murakami is an incredibly disciplined person. I guess you have to be disciplined to be a novelist. You need to keep on writing even when the words just aren’t there. The guy starts writing every day at 5:00 am. He goes to bed at 10:00 pm. The moment I read this I was determined to follow his example the next day. I get up most days at 5:00ish so I thought it couldn’t be that hard. My problem is that I spend an hour or so doomsday scrolling on my phone. On the first day of trying to emulate Murakami, I didn’t start working until 7:00 and on the next day, it was worse. I started working at 7:30. It’s gone down ever since then. So I probably won’t be as successful as Murakami.
The book also reveals some interesting things about Murakami’s character. I found it interesting how parts of his character are reflected in his books’ main characters. Murakami writes that he doesn’t do anything that he doesn’t want to do. THAT is his characters to a T. Think about the main character, Toru Okada, in Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Toru quits his job working in a law firm because he doesn’t enjoy it anymore even though he has no other job lined up. The portrait painter in Killing Commendatore quits painting people’s portraits because he doesn’t want to do it anymore and won’t sell his painting to Menshiki if Toru doesn’t like it even if it means losing a large commission.
Think about it. Living a life in which you can avoid doing things you don’t enjoy is a life of privilege that many of us don’t have. To live a life in which you never have to do anything that you don’t enjoy is the ultimate indicator of success.
Only really at the beginning of the memoir does Murakami write about writing. The most interesting part is when he tells us the moment he decided to start writing and the decision he made two years later to become a full-time writer. He talks about the response he got from his first two novels and briefly mentions that he wrote Wild Sheep Chase and Norwegian Wood but then stops talking about any of his other novels. It was like being given a couple of bites of a dish from a Michelin-starred restaurant and then having the dish taken away before you can eat the rest of it. Give me more writing and less running! It’s probably why I can’t give the book higher than 3 stars.
Aging is another theme that Murakami touches upon throughout the book. After running for over 25 years, Murakami feels frustrated because he’s not improving his marathon times though he keeps on training for them. His legs cramp up or his knees hurt. He attributes this to age.
“You make do with what you have. As you age you learn even to be happy with what you have.”
Along with the writing bits, I found the aging part to be compelling. When you get to be of an age when your body starts to fail you, it takes a while to accept that you can’t do certain things at all or at least as well as you used to.
Overall, I wavered between 3 and 4 stars. I liked the writing and aging parts, but I feel like I got too little of what I liked and too much of what I didn’t like. I know Murakami more as a person but perhaps not completely as a writer. I still have so many questions: Where does he get his ideas from? How could he suddenly at the age of 30 start writing even though he hadn’t shown any interest in it beforehand? What did he do to become a better writer? What’s his favorite book? His least favorite?
Should you buy, borrow, or skip this book? It depends.
Geoff Dyer in his review of Murakami’s memoir in the New York Times has this to say about What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’s target audience:
I’m guessing that the potential readership for “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” is 70 percent Murakami nuts, 10 percent running enthusiasts and an overlapping 20 percent who will be on the brink of orgasm before they’ve even sprinted to the cash register.
I’d say if you’re a runner or a Murakami fanatic, buy or borrow it.
If you’re looking for books on Japan before you travel to Japan, this isn’t going to reveal anything fascinating about the Japanese psyche or Japanese culture.
If you’re new to Murakami, I have a post ranking of the best Murakami books that’ll tell you where to start instead of this book.
My Favorite Quotes
“In the final analysis, the most important thing is what you can’t see, but what you can feel in your heart.”
“Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. 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 whole.”
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
“So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent.”
“I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.”
“I look up at the sky, wondering if I’ll catch a glimpse of kindness there, but I don’t. All I see are indifferent summer clouds drifting over the Pacific. And they have nothing to say to me. Clouds are always taciturn. I probably shouldn’t be looking up at them. What I should be looking at is inside of me. Like staring down into a deep well. Can I see kindness there? No, all I see is my own nature. My own individual, stubborn, uncooperative often self-centered nature that still doubts itself–that, when troubles occur, tries to find something funny, or something nearly funny, about the situation. I’ve carried this character around like an old suitcase, down a long, dusty path. I’m not carrying it because I like it. The contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. I’ve carried it with me because there was nothing else I was supposed to carry. Still, I guess I have grown attached to it. As you might expect.”
“I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.”
“In certain areas of my life, I actively seek out solitude. Especially for someone in my line of work, solitude is, more or less, an inevitable circumstance. Sometimes, however, this sense of isolation, like acid spilling out of a bottle, can unconsciously eat away at a person’s heart and dissolve it. You could see it, too, as a kind of double-edged sword. It protects me, but at the same time steadily cuts away at me from the inside.”
“I am struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don’t get that sort of system set by a certain age, you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance.”
“I don’t think most people would like my personality. There might be a few–very few, I would imagine–who are impressed by it, but only rarely would anyone like it. Who in the world could possibly have warm feelings, or something like them, for a person who doesn’t compromise, who instead, whenever a problem crops up, locks himself away alone in a closet? But is it ever possible for a professional writer to be liked by people? I have no idea. Maybe somewhere in the world it is. It’s hard to generalize. For me, at least, I’ve written novels over many years, I just can’t picture someone liking me on a personal level. Being disliked by someone, hated and despised, somehow seems more natural. Not that I’m relieved when that happens. Even I’m not happy when someone dislikes me.”
More Posts on Japan
- If you’re looking for more books on Japan, check out my post on 28 novels to read that are set in Japan.
- Can’t figure out what next to read by Haruki Murakami? Read my ranking of my favorite books by Murakami.
- Planning a trip to Japan in 2021? You can see a jam-packed itinerary full of culture and history in my Japan Itinerary: The Perfect 3 Weeks in the Land of the Rising Sun
- For more 2021 travel planning, get a detailed step-by-step guide to seeing the sights of Tokyo in Tokyo Itinerary: How to Spend Perfect Days in Tokyo
- Is a Japan Rail Pass Really Worth It? will tell you how to figure out whether to buy a Japan Rail Pass and all the essential info on how to purchase it, validate it, and use it.
My Favorite Books to Read on Japan
- Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami (AMAZON | BOOKSHOP.ORG)
- A Tale For the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki (AMAZON | BOOKSHOP.ORG)
- American Fuji – Sara Backer (AMAZON)
- The Devil of Nanking – Mo Hayder (AMAZON | BOOKSHOP.ORG)
- Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II – John Dower (AMAZON | BOOKSHOP.ORG)
- A History of Japan – R.H.P Mason and J.G. Caiger (AMAZON | BOOKSHOP.ORG)
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