“Long distance running suits my personality,“ writes Haruki Murkami in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Murakami’s memoir isn’t a book exclusively for runners, nor does it try to make running a grand metaphor for life or writing, though there’s some of that (Chapter Four: “Most of What I Know About Writing Fiction I Learned By Running Every Day”). Generally, it’s a training journal, a compendium of accomplishment and failure, descriptions of the sights and sounds on Boston’s Charles River, from Athens to Marathon and other locations where the author of Kafka On the Shore has picked them up and put them down. The book speaks of an irresistible relationship with discipline, an obsession with body image and the boredom of going on and on. Novelists: draw your own conclusions.
What seems most important here is the mental process, what thoughts the solitude of running conjures. “What exactly do I think about when I’m running?, “ he writes. The answer? “I haven’t a clue.” Actually, he does have a clue. It’s just that what goes through his mind is mundane, not the kind of lofty thoughts we’d expect of such a remarkable writer. “On cold days, I guess I think a little about how cold it is. And about the heat on hot days.” Sadness when he’s sad, happiness when he’s…well, you get the idea. “…hardly ever I get an idea to use in a novel. But really, as I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning.”
Really, he tells us, he runs to be empty headed, to gain a sort of Zen state, a void. With solitude, he develops a level of comfort. He accepts random thoughts as they come. But it’s that solitude thing that’s important to writing.
This matter-of-fact tone makes the book, like much of Murakami’s work, so readable. It’s all no big deal. Murakami’s a master of stating the obvious, often employing anecdotes to set up the nose on his face. The anecdotes end or are introduced with direct statements to convey their meaning. Just like that.
This isn’t one of those feel-good Chariots of Fire running tracts. Competition does play a role, both against other runners and himself. But there are more tangible goals. Ultimately, it’s a book of declining performance and failing knees, disappointment despite hard work and discipline. If you keep going in the face of this, he seems to say, you win without winning. Novelists–again–draw your own conclusions.–Cabbage Rabbit